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Representatives of the world's leading academies of sciences have called for two new global funds to enhance science and technology capacity in developing countries, describing such capacity building as "a necessity and not a luxury".

Their proposal is outlined in a report that was presented today (5 February) to Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, by the InterAcademy Council, an organisation set up by 90 of the world's academies.

Both funds would seek to raise money from governments, aid agencies, and private foundations, according to the report, entitled 'Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology'.

One of the funds, provisionally named the Global Institutional Fund (GIF), would provide long-term core funding to about 20 national or regional centres of excellence, operating either independently or within 'developing-world networks'.

The second, complementary, fund, known as the Global Programme Fund, would run a competitive grants system to support peer-reviewed research within centres of excellence in developing nations.

The report was written over a three-year period by a 12-member panel chaired by Jacob Palis, a professor at the National Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Ismail Serageldin, director of the Alexandria Library in Egypt and former chair of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

"Our goal in producing this report is to mobilise academies of science, development agencies, and international organisations around the world to support policies to strengthen science and technology for the benefit of all humanity," says Palis.

"We feel that it is a good moment to launch such an appeal, as a growing number of countries in the developing world are coming to accept the importance of science and technology, while the international scientific community is becoming convinced that they have something to contribute to the whole world."

The report itself starts from the premise that "all nations, particularly the developing ones, require an increased level of science and technology capacity to enhance their ability to adopt to new technologies – such as those related to the new life sciences – and adapt them to local needs".

It makes a number of relatively familiar proposals about how this might be done. For example, the report says that all developing countries should increase spending on research and development to at least 1 per cent of their gross national product.

It also puts its weight behind the creation of centres of research excellence as a focus for research activities in specific fields, describing these as "the key to innovation" whose importance "cannot be overestimated".

At the same time, however, the report also recommends – or endorses – more novel strategies. For example, it draws attention to a strategy being pioneered in Brazil of promoting 'sectoral' research funds, based on the income generated through corporation taxes on a particular industrial sector (see Brazil revises its sectoral approach to research funding).

The panel has praise for recent moves by the more scientifically advanced developing countries (in particular Brazil, China, India and South Africa) to build close scientific ties with poorer regions, for example by offering special research fellowships. Such a strategy was endorsed last October at a meeting of the Third World Academy of Sciences (see Developing nations 'should assist each other more').

And it says that one way of increasing support for university-based research groups in developing nations would be to offer long-term fellowships to "deserving young people from industrialised nations who wish to do their training at [such] institutions".

The report was welcomed by Annan, who said at a meeting at the UN headquarters in New York that the United Nations and its partners hope to mobilise "the best scientific minds of our time" in working towards the Millennium Development Goals, and that as a result "we must do all we can to translate the report's recommendations into actions" .

Annan expressed the hope that the IAC, together with the wider world scientific community, would build on the foundation that the report had established, in partnership with the United Nations and its agencies, other international and regional organisations, and the world's governments. "That is how the potential of science and technology can be realised in the struggle to improve the human condition," he added.

However, although the general thrust of the report as regards the importance of science and technology capacity building is unlikely to be challenged, some of the individual proposals may meet with some scepticism.

Calls for global science funds have frequently been made in the past, but have found few donors willing to entrust decisions on the distribution of such funds entirely to the scientific community. Such, for example, was the fate of a US$250-million fund approved in principle at the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development, held in Vienna in 1979.

Similarly, the idea of creating centres of excellence – although widely adopted in many developed countries – may find it more difficult to gain acceptance in countries where social and economic factors play an important role in the support of universities, where most of that country's research will be carried out.

But those who are already working in the directions set out in the report say that it should help them to generate the additional external support that they need to maintain such efforts.

"The IAC report will be extremely useful to us, as it will give a lot of visibility to the things that we are doing, and would like to expand," says Mohamed Hassan, the director of the Third World Academy of Sciences.

"From our point of view, for example, our top priority is building up institutions in developing countries that can contribute to enhancing science and technology capacity, and the report outlines a number of ways in which this can be done successfully."

According to Palis, the IAC is planning to organise a global meeting of potential donors in a few months' time at which strategies for implementing its conclusions and proposals – including the suggested creation of the two new funds – will be discussed.

Link to full report