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Japan is the latest country to give scientific cooperation with developing countries a higher profile in its foreign aid policies.
Last week, a delegation of Japanese science and aid officials arrived in South Africa to begin a tour of several African countries and discuss potential collaboration on research topics, ranging from climate change to nanotechnology.
Akihiko Iwahashi, deputy director general of Japan's science ministry heads the delegation. Speaking in Pretoria at a seminar with representatives of the Southern African Development Community, Iwahashi said that the purpose of the visit was to become "more familiar with African needs, policies and priorities".
The tour follows an exploratory meeting, the first between African and Japanese ministers of science, held in Tokyo last October. Representatives from 32 African countries attended.
Science and technology diplomacy
Both events are direct outcomes of Japan's decision, taken shortly before the G8 summit meeting in Hokkaido last summer, to use the country's scientific and technological prowess to help achieve foreign policy objectives. Or, to put it another way, to develop skills in 'science and technology diplomacy'.
Both also demonstrate a welcome recognition that such skills, when applied to aid policy, can only be effective when offered in a spirit of partnership, rather than on terms primarily designed to meet immediate domestic interests (see Can Japan take the 'science for development' baton).
Much of Japan's past efforts to integrate science and technology into aid policy focused on encouraging developing countries to use Japanese technology. Inevitably, a high proportion of the funding ended up with Japanese manufacturers.
Scientific collaboration has a similar history. Japan has long financed its own researchers to undertake joint projects directly relevant to developing countries, particularly in fields where it has a strong track record such as medicine and energy. But it usually required developing country collaborators to raise their own funds. This severely limited work with scientists in countries where research is a low social and political priority.
Policy of partnership
Fortunately Japan now seems to have a new commitment to science and technology diplomacy. Perhaps the clearest evidence is the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development — launched jointly last year by the Japanese Science and Technology Agency (JST) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
Under the scheme, JST continues to organise and finance Japanese researchers' participation in joint projects. But, for the first time, JICA is funding participation from research institutions within developing countries, acknowledging that such support is important for capacity building.
At the end of last year, the scheme approved funding for 12 research projects, covering disease control, food and security, and environmental protection. A second set of award winners is due to be announced shortly.
In a further contrast to earlier efforts, officials in Tokyo emphasise that each project aims to reinforce developing countries' research capacity for finding their own solutions to problems, as well as produce useful results.
Caution and caveats
But the new scheme has not been without teething problems. Japanese universities remain cautious about committing to activities that lie outside the normal grant procedures, or that do not promise an obvious return for Japanese taxpayers.
And JICA officials are more experienced with funding large-scale infrastructure projects. They admit the agency is ill-equipped to judge the scientific value of projects submitted by research organisations in the developing world, or to negotiate complex ethical requirements, for example those needed to carry out clinical trials (which, as a result, are not included in the scheme).
There is clearly much more that could be done. While the Japanese government has doubled its support for the scheme from 2008, this is still considerably less than the support countries like Sweden or the United Kingdom give similar activities.
And communication activities are being given relatively little support. Such activities are important in increasing public awareness and getting policymakers to take up research results. Without them, the impact of the JST/JICA sponsored research will be inevitably limited.
Still, judging from the enthusiasm expressed both at the Tokyo meeting last October, and in Southern Africa last week, Japan's new willingness to go for partnership over top-down directives is pressing the right buttons in Africa.