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African finance ministers and private companies have been urged to significantly increase funding for research and development (R&D) to build strong innovation systems in their countries.

The call came in a statement approved last week (3–7 March) by delegates of the 'Science With Africa' conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which was jointly organised by the African Union (AU) and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).

The statement — which will be forwarded to a AU-ECA conference of finance ministers being held later this month — also argued that for Africa to occupy an "appropriate position" in the global knowledge-driven economy, it had to find better ways of using scientific knowledge and skills to address its priorities.

Addressing the opening meeting, Abdoulie Janneh, executive secretary of ECA, pointed out that Africa was "the only region yet to fully exploit the great potentials of using science and technology as an engine of growth and development".

The scale of the challenge facing Africa in this area is huge, he said, pointing to hurdles such as low science and technology capacity, low investment in research and development, inadequate regulatory regimes, poor infrastructure and a lack of access to helpful scientific ideas.

But Janneh was optimistic that the challenge could be overcome "with vision, commitment and unwavering determination".

In a keynote address, Mohamed Hassan, president of the African Academy of Sciences and executive director of the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS), argued that, "without a critical mass of scientists globally trained on the spot and based in Africa, the continent's effective participation in research and international development will remain a utopia".

He urged African governments to take steps to halt the brain drain to industrialised countries, saying that the international market in research talent was growing and becoming more competitive.

The meeting was told that some countries are already taking steps to correct their previous lack of investment in R&D, with Ghana, South Africa, Uganda — among others — expressing an intention to do so.

But there was also concern about the gap between political commitments to take action, and the apparent lack of follow-through.

According to news agency PANAPRESS, Edward Ayensu, chairman of Ghana's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, complained at the meeting that, "We speak in fora such as this continuously and our ministers are experts in these areas. And, yet, when it comes to the time for us to do something nothing happens."