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African scientists will be able to connect up with fellow researchers who have moved overseas through a 'grid computing' project.

Launched by UNESCO this week (20 November) and co-sponsored by the information technology company Hewlett-Packard (HP), the initiative aims to tackle the brain drain that plagues Africa's scientific sector.

Grid computing technology uses powerful computer servers to give individuals access to databases all over the world. The joint project will be set up at universities in Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe, and will be extended to other countries in two years.

Since 1990, some 20,000 African professionals have left their home countries each year for the industrialised world. Skilled workers make up just four per cent of the total workforce in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Participating universities will be chosen by their governments, along with UNESCO, and preference given to university departments that already have technological capacity. Each government will also identify one discipline which, in addition to IT, will be prioritised for the project.

While UNESCO will organise and develop the project, HP will provide the equipment to set up the technology.

Gisèle Morin-Labatut, senior officer at the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, welcomed the project but warned of potential exclusivity. African researchers should be connected to all researchers in the North, not just fellow Africans, she said.

But Alioune Camara, a senior officer at the IDRC in Senegal, disagreed. Instead, he says, any step that can be taken towards alleviating the effects of the brain drain should be welcomed.

"We cannot achieve everything at once," he told SciDev.Net. "African researchers abroad are themselves connected with those in the North, so this will open up much larger networks of research."

"The main problem of our emigrating researchers is not so much that they are outside the country as the fact that they are disconnected from researchers in their homeland," he said.

Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, an education project leader at UNESCO told SciDev.Net that a similar project launched in Eastern Europe in 2003 successfully provided scientists with substantial research networks.

Although she could not give exact figures, she told SciDev.Net that funding for the project would not be substantial.