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Five years after its launch, SciDev.Net is proud of its achievements. But it is also aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

Last month, the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) celebrated its fifth birthday. Much has been achieved, but it is clear there are many challenges ahead.

Both these aspects were highlighted in an independent evaluation carried out in 2006 by The Policy Practice. This was based on an extensive electronic survey coupled with in-depth telephone interviews and focus groups held in Africa, China, India and Latin America.

The overall results were reassuringly positive, confirming the website has successfully built "a reputation for quality and reliability". It concluded that our four main donors (The United Kingdom's Department for International Development, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Canada's International Development Research Centre, and the Rockefeller Foundation), for whose support we remain indebted, "should feel well satisfied with what has been achieved".

But the evaluation identified several areas in which we could be more effective. These include improving the presentation of — and publicity given to — our dossiers, increasing coverage of regional developments, and encouraging interaction both with and between the website's users.

Achievements in 2006

The past year has been one of significant achievement. Our news service continues to develop; we now have more than 120 correspondents in over 50 countries. And we were delighted to receive recognition from the Association of British Science Writers in July for our coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and its aftermath, which they described as "the best science writing on the world wide web".

Two new dossiers were launched during the year — on bird flu, and desert science — bringing the total number to 12. The regional dimension of the dossiers has also increased, including 'spotlights' on research and development in sub-Saharan Africa and climate change in India.

We continue to use training workshops, particularly with journalists, as a means of developing local capacity in science and technology communication. Events have been held in China, Cuba, Ethiopia and Panama, often in collaboration with local partners. A high level of interaction from our contributors and a close working relationship with groups such as the World Federation of Science Journalists, has helped embed science communication skills in the countries we seek to serve.

What comes next?

During the next year we plan to build on these achievements. We will continue to seek to raise awareness of the scientific and technological aspects of development.

We will continue to develop our news coverage, focusing on issues and events directly relevant to our goal, such as the African Union summit (whose theme will be science, technology and innovation) taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, later this month.

Regional news coverage will be enhanced with regular 'round-ups' — selections of short news stories. If financing permits, we will increase our coverage of the Middle East, as well as the production of material into other languages, particularly French.

Our dossier material will be enhanced by commissioning more original opinion articles, to enhance the platform for 'voices from the South'. We will also strengthen links to relevant material on other websites.

Major development work will take place on the website itself. Most obvious will be a redesign of individual pages, planned for launch by the middle of the year. Access to the website will improve, as will many aspects of the website's functionality, including our search engine.

We will continue to organise capacity building workshops. These will be complemented by an online training course for science journalists, the first components of which have already been tested by African and Middle Eastern reporters attending the UN climate change summit in Nairobi, Kenya.

Support from users

This is an ambitious agenda. We may not be able to achieve all of it but I am confident that we can go a long way towards doing so.

If we succeed, it will be thanks to the continued enthusiasm and commitment of many people. First among these are the SciDev.Net staff around the world. Complementing this has been the invaluable work of our growing network of dossier consultants, freelance journalists, commentators and academic advisers.

Behind everything has been the dedication and support of our trustees. We are also indebted to our programme managers in the various agencies that have backed us over the past five years; the positive outcome of the evaluation confirms that their faith has been justified.

None of our achievements would have been possible without our growing number of users, particularly those who have registered with us, whose numbers increased by 40 per cent during the year. SciDev.Net can only succeed in terms of its ability to demonstrate its worth to those engaged in all aspects of development activities, including both promoting economic growth and alleviating poverty.

The existing enthusiasm for our efforts surfaced in the various focus groups that formed part of the evaluation. Equally evident was the widespread demand for more — more region-specific information, more interaction with the website's users, and more interaction with policymakers.

It would be naïve to pretend that SciDev.Net can meet all of these demands. In the long run, it is up to developing countries themselves to build the capacity to do so. If we can provide some assistance in the process, we will have achieved a large part of our task. That is the challenge that lies ahead for the next five years. We hope we continue to enjoy the support of all our users as we approach this challenge.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net