Your editorial (see 'Hard choices in Africa's bid for scientific excellence') suggests that opinions on how to develop science in Africa are divided, with one side arguing that existing institutions should be strengthened, and the other supporting the creation of a few new centres of excellence judiciously spread around the continent. 

I believe that the two approaches are complementary, and are both needed.

Promoting science and technology in a country involves many economic, cultural, policy and funding considerations. Establishing centres of excellence is unlikely to promote a science 'culture' in areas beyond the host country. And without investing in local scientific education and research, countries will not be able to benefit from, or even take part in, activities in regional centres.

But there is still a role for centres of excellence. Most African countries cannot build local excellence in all areas of science. Selected centres of excellence could serve as regional hubs where scientists and engineers from different countries can network and collaborate on regional or continental work.

A good example of the successful relationship between local and regional or continental research institutions can be found in Europe. Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), for example, carry out large-scale, difficult and expensive experiments beyond the means of most individual countries. But they also collaborate with other researchers from universities and research centres across Europe.

Similarly, in the United States, the NASA centres, the Department of Energy centres, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Institutes of Health conduct large, high-priority and often interdisciplinary research in collaboration with colleagues at local universities and research centres.

African countries must begin to invest in their own science and technology infrastructure. But at the same time, regional and continental centres of excellence should be taken forward by regional and continental organisations like the African Union and international donor agencies. These centres will prompt informed African leaders to direct their countries’ science and technology endeavours in such a way that any benefits are maximised. 

Related SciDev.Net articles:
'Boost basic science projects', say African scientists
Hard choices in Africa's bid for scientific excellence
African science: now is the time to deliver

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