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[TUNIS] The Internet is not meeting its potential to globalise science because researchers in developing countries are not getting the access they need, according to an international study.

The research conducted by the World Science Project in six developing countries and the United States was presented last week in Tunisia prior to the World Summit on the Information Society.

Participants at the Summit heard repeatedly that higher education institutes in developing nations, and in Africa in particular, need more Internet connections and greater bandwidth — in other words, faster access to the Internet.

But according to World Science Project director Wesley Shrum, this would not be enough to boost research and teaching at such institutions. He says more must be done to ensure that scientists get the Internet access they need to participate in the global research community.

The project's survey in Kenya showed, for example, that although — thanks to the Internet — Kenyan scientists are increasingly involved in collaborative research, their scientific output has not increased.

Shrum points out that in many African universities, Internet access is limited to the offices of senior administrators and is not easily available to researchers. As a result, they cannot download online research papers, and use their limited access mostly for email.

"It is of course quite impossible for a lecturer to go to the vice-chancellor or dean's office to browse the Internet," agrees Vincent Agbovi, a lecturer at the University of Lomé, Togo.

Agbovi adds, however, that most university campuses in francophone Africa have special centres providing "very affordable" Internet access solely for lecturers and graduate students.

"The only problem is that they contain about 25 computers for hundreds of teaching staff, and each person is allowed only an hour a day for browsing," he says.

Agbovi says that increasing bandwidth and the number of Internet connections on African campuses would boost the continent's scientific output.

But for Shrum, overcoming the problems facing Africa's research community will require more than international collaborations and money alone.

He says it is essential that beneficiaries from any efforts to increase Internet connectivity be carefully selected so that scientists who are most likely to gain from using the Internet can do so. 

The World Science Project is an international, university-led collaboration that has surveyed Internet use in Chile, Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines and the US state of Louisiana.

Its findings were presented at the Past, Present and Future of Research in the Information Society conference, held on 13-15 November in Tunis.