Forum hears proposals for African science foundation

The forum has heard a range of proposals to improve science funding in Africa Copyright: Flickr/WorldFishCenter

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[NAIROBI] Scientists at an all-Africa meeting on science, technology and innovation underway in Kenya have put forward a range of proposals to improve science funding for the continent — including the creation of a science foundation or fund modelled on the likes of US National Science Foundation.

Delegates at the first Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth (1–3 April) heard that that a continental foundation would enable bold, innovative ideas to be developed and scaled up more easily.

Alfred J. Watkins, the executive chairman of the Global Innovation Summit, said any African Foundation "could probably benefit a great deal from the lessons of experience generating by [the] 'Rising Stars' model," which is funded by the Canadian government as part of the Grand Challenges Canada programme.

Rising Stars provides grants worth 100,000 Canadian dollars to innovators from low- and medium-income countries, for research into persistent health challenges in the developing world.

It also includes an "angels' club", which sources funding and mentors for researchers, and a procurement process, through which the private sector purchases innovations for large-scale dissemination or manufacture.

“We did this because there is so much talent than opportunities in these countries, so many innovations that can offer solutions to make an impact,” Peter Singer, chief executive officer of Grand Challenges Canada, told Sci.Dev.Net.

"It would be the ideal model to build upon. We are at the conference to create partnerships and to try and scale up through the private sector."

Watkins said an African fund or foundation could organise a competition whereby "virtual multi-disciplinary teams of African scientists from more than one African country" could vie for research grants.  

He acknowledged there would be challenges in measuring the impact of research across the continent in terms of the number jobs or entrepreneurs established, or the number of scientific articles and patents produced.

He suggested that funding could be provided by such institutions as the Africa Development Bank.

An official from the African Development Bank who declined to be named told SciDev.Net that the bank is not yet ready to fund an African continental foundation yet, noting that the proposal needed further discussion and the selection of a viable model by the region's scientific community.

Other scientists at the forum suggested a regional rather than continental structure for a foundation, to reduce costs and linguistic challenges. Some also suggested it should be chaired or hosted on a rotating basis.

But some researchers warned against any hasty moves to establish a foundation.

"I think we need to take stock of what we have before we think of a foundation," said Alfred van Kent, director of National Research, Science, Technology and Innovation in Namibia. "What have we done right, what is not working, where are the gaps? Maybe it is a matter of tweaking the alignment and everything falls in place."

Separately, concern was expressed on the second day of the conference that today's ministerial meeting might not generate sufficient concrete outcomes.

"In the last decade there have been at least five Ministerial conferences on ST&I with lofty resolutions. It is my sincere hope that this meeting will not suffer the same fate as its predecessors," said Dzingai Mutumbuka, chairman of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa.

"The takeaway here is that it is time that we, Africans, moved away from lofty conference resolutions to implementation, implementation, implementation," he said.


See below for video of Peter Singer, from Grand Challenges Canada, explaining the Rising Stars programme: