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[YAOUNDÉ] Cameroon is reversing its scientific brain drain by boosting the salaries of university academics.

The early signs are that a government fund of 4.2 billion Central African francs (almost US$9.5 million), created in early 2009, has increased the number of scientists and stabilised the research environment.

New allowances are now paid quarterly to more than 2,500 lecturers and researchers — up from 1,800 at the start of 2009 — which suggests that academics are returning to their campuses, according to Ives Magloire Kengne, a scientist at Cameroon's University of Yaoundé.

"This fund provides more teachers and researchers. We have been working under extremely difficult conditions," he said.

The fund was made possible after two major foreign debts were written off and Cameroon decided to put this 'windfall' to use in the health, engineering and education sectors.

Maurice Tsalefac, a professor at the University of Yaoundé's geography department, told SciDev.Net that the old salary for top university professors was about US$550 a month. Many left for western African countries where monthly salaries for the top posts were closer to US$4,000, he said.

Under the new system, salaries have increased for all levels of academics, he said. Professors now receive almost US$1,850, while senior lecturers have seen their monthly payments increase from US$530 to US$1,600, and lecturers are now paid US$1,100, up from US$490.

Paul Henry Ngue, head of the monitoring unit at Cameroon's Ministry of Higher Education, said the salary increase is "a breath of fresh air that marks the government's willingness to strengthen university research".

He added that the authorities have put universities at the forefront of development policy. "The results of research must serve socioeconomic development, and the decision to strengthen and modernise research in universities has been taken by the president of the republic."

Ngue said that since paying the higher salaries, researchers at state universities have also become more productive, with the Ministry of Higher Education counting about 100 scientific publications so far.

But Kengne said: "This fund allows us to relax a little — but not enough. The government should make an extra effort."

The salary fund is permanent, with the government planning to increase it annually.