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Ben Ngubane
[JOHANNESBURG] Representatives from a group of major African countries have adopted what one participant described as a “roadmap” for the development of science and technology on the continent, as well as a strategy for pushing science and technology higher up the agenda of national governments.

In order to help achieve these goals, they have also agreed to set up a continent-wide ‘forum’ on science and technology, to be made up of African science ministers and presidential science advisers.

The agreement on these initiatives came yesterday (19 February) at the end of a three-day workshop in Johannesburg on the role of science and technology in the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).

The new science forum will be set up within NEPAD — which is expected to spearhead social and economic development across Africa — and will report to a secretariat being established at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa.

It will be advised by a panel of experts, including scientists, industrialists and policy makers, who will be given the task of developing a NEPAD science and technology “programmatic framework”. This is expected to bear many similarities to the multi-year Framework programme, first launched in the early 1980s, which is used to fund research programmes through the European Commission in Brussels.

The Johannesburg workshop was hosted by the South African Department of Science and Technology, and attended by more than 80 science policy experts and government officials from countries across Africa. These included four of the five founding nations of NEPAD, namely South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt. (A delegation from Senegal failed to show up.)

In an opening address, Ben Ngubane, South Africa’s Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, said that the participants had a mission “to ensure that we leverage resources nationally, regionally and continentally … and to commit ourselves to [developing] a knowledge base for a more equitable, prosperous and sustainable Africa”.

Ngubane said that Africa should take heed of the lessons learnt in Europe, where knowledge and innovation “underpinned by intergovernmental instruments” remain the key drivers of economic growth.

“The truth is that if we want to transcend the scourge of poverty and disease, the only viable modality open to Africa and the rest of the developing world is the creation of regional and sub-regional growth and development strategies, sustained by a new global partnership in science and technology.”

There was a high level of agreement among the delegates on such sentiments as they discussed the role of science and technology in improving the lives of African people within the context of NEPAD, emphasising that science and technology were an essential element for development, rather than a reward for it.

“The most important thing about this meeting is that it gives us a roadmap with which to craft a wider African process around science and technology,” said Adi Paterson, chief operating officer in the South African Department of Science and Technology.

Keen to draw up a broad declaration that would spell out areas of common concern while avoiding either internal or external tensions, the delegates shied away from controversial topics such as intellectual property rights.

Instead, the consensus document that they adopted highlights concerns that face the continent as a whole, such as the exodus of skilled scientists, poor quality science education, and the low level of investment in science and technology as a percentage of GDP.

Delegates resolved to conduct a review of Africa’s policies and performance in science, mathematics and engineering education. They also plan to review the research taking place on the continent to see whether it meshes with NEPAD’s priorities, and to ensure that science and technology are integrated into NEPAD’s sectoral programmes on health, agriculture, education, environment, governance, infrastructure, security, investment and trade.

Finally the delegates agreed to strengthen scientific ‘centres of excellence’ and regional research networks throughout Africa. The declaration does not detail specific priority areas, leaving this to national governments. But it does emphasise broad areas that could benefit from regional co-operation, including desertification, biotechnology, space science and information technology.

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Link to 'statement of commitments'
Link to Ngubane's keynote address