Funding African science – an invitation for ideas

Copyright: IRD/Michel Dukhan

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Building an effective and accountable way to fund science and technology across Africa is a major challenge facing the region’s leaders and scientific communities. You are invited to join the debate.

Like a vast elephants’ graveyard, the African landscape is scattered with the carcasses of noble, but resource-starved, attempts to sustain science and technology. Some projects struggle on, barely managing, with minimal budgets, a handful of underpaid staff, and no discernible impact on the continent’s scientific and technical needs.

A few years ago, proposals for an African Science and Innovation Facility (ASIF) emerged from a group of African science ministers, meeting under the auspices of the New Partnership for Economic Development. This is the latest effort to build an institution that will meet the continent’s science and technology needs, and its biggest challenge will be to avoid the fate of its predecessors (see Comments sought on African science funding body). Indeed, the success of the next African Union (AU) summit meeting, due to take place in January, will be measured by how much groundwork it can lay for such an institution.

Many will wish these efforts every success. Since the idea for ASIF was first proposed, the case for a strong, continent-wide system for funding research and innovation has become steadily stronger.

This case is built on three factors. Firstly, there is a growing recognition that Africa will only develop economically and socially by building its own capacity to generate and harness science and technology. Secondly, much of this can best be done through joint activities, within African regions and across the continent. And thirdly, a coordinated approach from donors is needed to help define and meet the continent’s needs.

ASIF is being proposed as an answer to all three issues. In particular, ASIF would implement the existing "consolidated plan of action", which lists initiatives in a range of scientific fields costing almost US$160 million over five years. Science ministers have already endorsed this plan.

So far, so good. But if the case for ASIF is easy to put, designing it is far more complex.

Few African governments or donor agencies have a track record of coordinating their efforts with those of others. And too often, individual or organisational agendas, ranging from garnering political influence to personal empire building, divert efforts from the most effective approach.

Four keys to success

Experience elsewhere shows that four issues need to be addressed head on if ASIF is to succeed.

The first is a commitment to scientific quality. This is not necessarily the same as scientific excellence — Africa’s scientific progress should not be measured by the number of Nobel prizes it produces. But it does mean that any research or training funded through ASIF should have a built-in commitment to quality.

The second requirement is a commitment to relevance. The continent’s social and economic needs must be kept firmly in mind when planning science and technology. That does not mean that all research should tackle recognised problems, and even less that only projects likely to be ‘market winners’ should be supported. These two strategies have already proved costly for governments who have tried to second-guess the market.

But it does mean that scientists alone should not set the agenda. Research priorities must follow a well thought-out strategy, and the results should be fully communicated to others, so that new knowledge can be put to good use.

Thirdly, a strategy will only work if African governments have agreed to ‘buy in’ to it. Projects designed and funded from outside frequently fail to take root because they are perceived as irrelevant to a local definition of needs and priorities. That must be avoided with ASIF, and this will only be achieved if a significant proportion of the funding comes from the pockets of African governments themselves.

The final need is for accountability. In many ways, this is the biggest single challenge. All those who contribute funding to projects through ASIF must be comfortable with the way their money is being spent (if they are not, then ASIF will be doomed from the start). But this needs to be done with a light touch; excessive political interference in key decisions (such as the location of regional facilities) could be highly damaging.

Who should take the lead?

Negotiating a path through these sometimes conflicting requirements will not be easy. Many developed countries have managed it, though often only after a lengthy period of trial and error. But some lessons have emerged from their experiences.

For example, some of the most effective projects come about when economists have strong input into investment decisions (providing they believe that spending on research is an appropriate social investment).

This would suggest the African Development Bank as a strong candidate to manage ASIF. Long derided for its lack of impact, the bank has become increasingly effective in the past few years, and has recently committed to significantly boosting its ability to handle science and technology projects.

Alternatively, a politically popular solution to the problem of accountability would be to create a new intergovernmental organisation, directly under the control of African governments. This would undoubtedly be attractive to those worried about ASIF pursuing its own agenda. But without clear technical or financial mandates, such bodies can rapidly become excessively bureaucratic and lose their effectiveness.

A preferable route would be to create a body with a broadly-written mandate and the freedom to choose the best way of fulfilling it. This implies a two-tier structure, where an overseeing board (with the appropriate political representation), allows the operating arm a degree of autonomy.

In the United States, for example, the National Science Board and the National Science Council have operated effectively with just such a relationship for almost 60 years. How far this, and other, models are relevant to Africa needs to be studied closely. But the principle has considerable merit.

Tell us — and others — what you think

Other ideas also need to be scrutinised. This week, SciDev.Net is launching an electronic forum on the future of science and technology in Africa. You are invited to present your ideas about how Africa’s needs can best be met, and to comment on other people’s proposals.

We hope that this forum will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to suggest what the AU summit can do to boost science, technology and innovation in Africa.

If ‘buy-in’ from African government is essential for success, engaging the research community in the summit’s outcome is just as important. And that will only happen if members of that community feel they are being heard.

Hopefully, our forum, presented as part of a broader coverage of preparations for the AU summit, will make a small contribution to ensuring that this happens.

To join the debate, visit www.scidev.net/ausummit07

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net