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Zambia is considering excluding scientists from its current mandatory public sector retirement age of 55, in order to address its chronic skills shortage.
The country’s science and technology policy review, which started in 2007 and should finish before end of this year, will see enforced retirement of scientists in the public sector raised to more than 70 years of age, says science minister Peter Daka, according to a report in The Standard newspaper last month (May 7).
Emmanuel Hachipuka, deputy chairman of the public accounts committee and parliamentary opposition member, supports the reform, saying "it takes so many years for scientists to mature and get experience".
But William Mumbi, director of science and technology at the Ministry of Science, says lifting the retirement age will not address the shortage of scientists, because the problem starts far earlier.
"The policy should instead make it mandatory for pupils to start science and maths lessons at kindergarten level", says Mumbi.
Hachipuka says that a key reason for the shortage of scientists is that Zambian public sector scientists are poorly paid, receiving about US$300 a month.
Another important issue, he says, is that, in the last five years, the Ministry of Finance has allocated less than one per cent of the national budget to science — leading to poor research and equipment funds.
Peter Lawrence, a researcher at the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, writes in the current issue of Nature that compulsory retirement, as practiced in Europe and Japan, is discriminatory. He notes that Australia, Canada and the United States have done away with this practice.
"People should be valued for everything they contribute, not just the meeting of some measure", Lawrence told SciDev.Net.
The policy review is also apparently examining the lack of cooperation between public research institutions like the University of Zambia and the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, and private organisations such as the Zambia Seed Company.
The office of the permanent secretary at the ministry repeatedly refused to say who was heading the review and declined to supply either the existing policy or the draft proposals. Mumbi said this was because the permanent secretary and the minister were out of the office.