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[JOHANNESBURG] African nations have agreed to invest one per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) in scientific research within the next five years.

The commitment was made at a week-long Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology organised by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

But some are warning that African nations might not be able to reach the target. At present, even the continent's economic powerhouse, South Africa – which invests more money in real terms than many neighbouring countries put together – allocates only 0.7 per cent of its budget to science.

Egypt is the only country in Africa currently achieving the 1 per cent milestone. But they say problems don’t stop there. "We recently reached our target and we find it difficult to maintain," warns Hagar Islambouly, Egyptian ambassador to South Africa.

The Algerian minister of higher education and scientific research, Rachid Haraoubia, says that although Algeria formally enshrined the target in its national legislation five years ago, the country is only now coming really close to breaking through the barrier.

Others argue that, if nothing else, the commitment to increase spending on science will force governments to assess how much science is done within other sectors, such as agriculture and health. This alone should increase the visibility of science among policymakers.

"It won't take ten years to see results. We will get some impact within five years," predicts Wilson Mwenya, executive secretary of the Zambian National Science and Technology Council.

In addition to internal funding for science, a NEPAD science and technology fund will provide financial help. The United Nations Scientific, Educational and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Development Fund and others have expressed a desire to assist NEPAD in its science mission (see Canada supports African science initiative).

The meeting warned against creating high-profile, prestigious projects from scratch. Instead, it encouraged sustaining pockets of scientists wherever they work – and that includes regions outside.

This emphasis was welcomed by many delegates. Blandina Mkayula, senior education officer for science and technology policy issues in Tanzania, for example, praised the "smooth fit" between NEPAD initiatives and existing science projects and policies. 

African scientists have had to deal with serious issues, including isolation and duplication of research. The NEPAD initiative envisages a web of overlapping networks stretching from centres of excellence in areas such as biotechnology to universities and industry.

The delegates were quick to endorse a North African bloc proposal for senior science officials to meet every year to report back on their activities. Science ministers will meet every two years to evaluate their progress.

However, some are concerned that the turnover in politics may hamper the effectiveness of the agreement. Five countries in southeastern Africa alone, including South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania, will have national elections in 2004.

Most delegates remained upbeat in the face of doubts regarding NEPAD's effectiveness. But some commentators warn that science ministers will have a tough job persuading their finance ministers to back their commitments. And finance ministers in turn will have to persuade their citizens that a long-term investment in science should take priority.

"Robbing Paul to pay Peter is not the approach," said South Africa's Ben Ngubane, who will chair the Ministerial Council for the next two years. "It's a matter of using science to underpin sustainable development. Science is not so narrowly based that you have to rob departments!"

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