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A fortunate coincidence of policy interests between Africa and the United States could lead to more fertile science collaborations over the next decade, a leading expert on the role of science and technology in African development has said.

Industrialised nations — particularly the United States — are increasingly focusing on areas such as infrastructure development, energy and agriculture to deal with the current economic crisis, said Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at the US-based Harvard University.

These are areas in which Africa has been struggling for decades, he said in a lecture to the US National Academies in Washington DC last week (9 January).

Citing the example of IT, Juma said, "When the US starts to upgrade its IT infrastructure, it will be in a better position to do the same in African countries without having to incur additional start-up and learning costs. You can't do internationally what you can't do at home".

The United States in particular could take this approach in light of president-elect Barack Obama's plan for economic transformation, announced last week (8 January), which focuses on areas such as infrastructure and energy.

Juma cited China's involvement in Africa as an example of such policy convergence.

"China is able to respond quickly to Africa's infrastructure needs because it is in the business of modernising its [own] infrastructure."

Juma added that because the economic crisis has defined both national and international policies, this should speed the work of donor agencies, which will not have to spend time and money on setting priorities. 

"On the whole, it's cheaper to collaborate when policies are aligned; it is more expensive and complex when they're not."

Africa's higher education system should play a prominent role in these new partnerships, said Juma. But to do so, Africa's university system should be reformed to combine teaching with research and the productive sectors — and donor countries need to collaborate more with universities rather than research institutes.