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Local capacity building is a key component of successful collaborative scientific projects between developed and developing countries, according to speakers addressing the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Other factors that contribute to the success of such projects, said the speakers, include a commitment to the project on both sides, sustainability, a clear focus and goals, and adequate attention to the training needs of those involved.

These were some of the conclusions to emerge from a series of talks given at the AAAS meeting in Seattle yesterday (14 February) during a session organised jointly by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Society for International Development (SID).

The two institutions had invited a series of speakers to discuss the lessons to emerge from specific examples of innovative ways to build effective partnerships between scientists and scientific institutions in both developing and advanced nations.

Bruce Young, coordinator of the Research and Analysis Network for Neotropical Amphibians (RANA), presented what he described as an "inspiring" example of successful collaboration. This had started with regional workshops in Latin American countries in which there had been a dramatic decline in the population of amphibians.

Those workshops were useful not only to identify the current state of knowledge in the region and the challenges faced in building it up, but also to select regional partners who were committed to studying and protecting amphibians, and therefore to the research project.

Phillip Griffiths, director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, said that an essential component of success in collaborative projects was to involve scientists from developing countries in their design and implementation.

But he admitted that committed scientists were not always easy to find, particularly because science and technology were not yet considered to be a priority in much of the developing world.

This made it important to work on building up science policies in these countries, and to get science and technology issues integrated into national budgets. In each of these areas, Griffiths admitted that there was much work to be done.

Joan Dudik-Gayoso, board member of the SID chapter inWashington, and one of the organizers of the AAAS session, emphasised that it was difficult to generalise about what made a successful collaborative project, as "the situation in the least developed countries requires special approaches".

She quoted the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development that perhaps research and development in such countries needed to be relatively more "applied and user-oriented" than in countries that were more developed.

Nevertheless all the panelists agreed that capacity building in science and technology had an important role to play in effective and innovative collaborative projects.

The organisers of the AAAS session admitted that although each of the panellists who had been invited to speak was closely involved with partners in the developing regions, the absence of such partners from the session meant that the picture was incomplete.

"We didn't have a source of funding to bring them," said Elizabeth Lyons, from the Office of International Science and Engineering at the NSF. "The next step is to learn how to apply what we know, and how we engage our partners. We have to know what works from their side."

Lyons agreed that the response of partners on collaborative projects in developing countries tended to vary widely. Despite this, it was still possible to draw some conclusions from the presentations to the AAAS session.

"The panelists emphasised, for example, how important it is to match priorities," she said, adding that they also agreed that it was necessary to build projects that lasted, and that influenced graduate students and their institutions. "That's what we are really struggling with at NSF," she said.