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Developing-world scientists should make every effort to pursue careers at home – and their governments should help them, says Mohamed Hassan.

The world's least developed countries (LDCs) are also the world's least scientifically proficient. They could benefit greatly from South–South cooperation on research projects and, even more importantly, through educational and training programmes. This would provide the next generation of scientists with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Young scientists in LDCs should take advantage of these opportunities to help their countries build a strong foundation in scientific excellence. But if they are to do that, their governments must create and sustain conditions that encourage young scientists to stay at home.

Laying the groundwork

Given that strong national research systems must form the basis of international collaboration, several measures are needed to lay a groundwork of scientific capacity.

First, each country handicapped by inadequate scientific capacity (TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, numbers these at 80) must create at least one research university as an international centre of excellence.

According to the 2007 Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking, Africa has only five universities among the world's top 500 (four in South Africa and one in Egypt). The 56 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have two.

Universities with international standing are critical for setting national quality standards in education and research, attracting and training scientific talent, and, crucially, curbing the brain drain. More scientists from Sub-Saharan Africa currently live and work in the United States than live and work in their native countries. They are more likely to collaborate with colleagues in the North than with colleagues at home. It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop collaborative research projects when a nation's best scientists are living and working elsewhere.

Second, countries must invest more in their university systems as a whole. This is necessary if future scientists are to be trained to participate in international research initiatives at the highest levels.

Sub-Saharan Africa once had some of the developing world's finest universities, including the University of Khartoum, where I taught in the 1970s and ’80s. But political turmoil and sparse funding robbed these universities of their capacities and denied attractive employment opportunities to a generation of professors. There is an urgent need to train young scientists to replace professors hired in those decades.

The developing world as a whole accounts for only 22 per cent of the world’s scientific publications, and almost half originate from only three countries: China (6.6 per cent), India (2.2 per cent) and Brazil (1.5 per cent). Africa's total contribution is 1.4 per cent, with South Africa and Egypt accounting for more than half of the continent's share.

Third, each country must establish and support a national science foundation. Such institutions can administer merit-based funding for science. In Africa, there is only one: the South African National Research Foundation. Nigeria announced plans to launch a science foundation in 2006 with a US$5 billion endowment, but the money has not been secured.

Fourth, countries must establish technology innovation centres, preferably within or near their universities, to nurture synergy between education, research and innovation.

International research collaboration in the 21st century will largely focus on projects tied to global challenges, such as mitigating the effects of global warming, conserving biodiversity, broadening the scope of renewable energies and restraining infectious diseases. Scientists must be schooled in the process of innovation and how scientific findings are transformed into useful products and services. Innovation centres can help do this.

Fifth, countries must build a merit-based national science academy. Only 13 of 48 Sub-Saharan African countries have one. And where they exist, they need strengthening.

Science academies remain an underused resource. They could foster international collaborative research by identifying a country's preeminent researchers. They could also provide expert advice on the global science-based initiatives that governments should be vigorously pursuing.

NorthSouth and SouthSouth research partnerships between scientists and scientific institutions of unequal capabilities should not be abandoned. Scientific exchange, after all, often generates valuable outcomes even under less than ideal circumstances.

Yet to realise the full promise of SouthSouth collaboration, the yawning gap in scientific capabilities between countries, especially between developing countries, must be closed. That's the goal of TWAS' postgraduate and postdoctoral programme, which helps train the next generation of students and young researchers from countries lagging in science and technology.

The message

In short, fruitful research collaboration in the developing world depends partly on — and must help ensure that — indigenous capacities are strong enough for local scientists to be true partners in joint projects and programmes.

The future of SouthSouth research collaboration rests on letting scientists pursue rewarding careers in their own countries, where they can get involved in solving real-life problems.

International research collaboration does indeed begin at home.

The message to LDC governments is: create and sustain conditions that encourage your young scientists to stay at home. The message to young scientists in LDCs is: give your country a chance to help you.

Mohamed H.A. Hassan is executive director of TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, in Trieste, Italy.

This article is part of a Spotlight on The promise of South–South cooperation.