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[LONDON] The "remarkable recent economic growth" in many African countries may be able to sustain science through domestic funding (rather than through external sources) — but a lack of scientists and research capacity is threatening to reel back that economic growth, a meeting has heard.

The gross domestic product (GDP) of many African countries has been growing at a rate of 6–8 per cent each year, amounting to almost doubling of GDPs every decade, according to Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser and director of research at the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Whitty was speaking at the launch of the Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative yesterday (1 November), at the Royal Society in London, United Kingdom.

But unlike in China, South Asia and South-East Asia, where there was a surplus of scientists, engineers, doctors and teachers trained at the early stages of countries' development, in most African countries there are up to 1,000 times fewer scientists than in Asian countries in the equivalent state of development.

"This is potentially a major block to the development of middle-income countries in Africa," Whitty said. "Developing the capacity of science in African countries, by African scientists, is going to be essential."

The new funding initiative, totalling US$24 million, will work towards meeting that goal by funding the establishment of 30 research consortia, with top grants exceeding £1 million (US$1.6 million) over a five-year period.

Whitty admitted that capacity building is very difficult as practitioners still do not know what works and what does not. Furthermore, he reiterated, capacity building has to be long-term, as the time it takes for a primary school child to develop into an active adult researcher takes decades. It would also require a multi-disciplinary approach, he said.

But he stressed that science was essential to ensuring African development, and that it had already played a key role in development advances on the continent.

"There are many aspects of scientific discovery that affect Africa," said Whitty, citing examples of sweet potatoes enhanced with vitamin A, groundwater mapping, and using solar power to charge mobile phones and other devices.

A 40 per cent fall in child mortality rates over the past decade was an "astonishing achievement," backed up by strong science and infrastructure improvements. And eradicating rinderpest (a cattle plague virus) was preceded by 40 years — or more — of scientific research before it managed to translate into a big advance for the continent, Whitty said.

"By the end of this century a third of the world's population will be African and living in Africa," he said. "Science is critical for Africa — [and] for the rest of the world."

Shem Arungu-Olende, secretary-general of the African Academy of Sciences, said: "Africa's development has been lagging behind the rest of the world because of, among other things, inadequate science and technological activities, including research and development".

"The situation has been worsened by the lure of talented African scientists to better, more lucrative positions and institutions overseas."

Arungu-Olende highlighted the importance and timeliness of the new capacity building initiative for Africa, but said the sustainability of the initiative beyond the five-year grant was "critically important".