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Amuriat Oboi Patrick

A prominent Ugandan politician has urged all parliaments in African countries to set up science and technology committees to increase the effectiveness with which science and technology are integrated into economic and social development.

The suggestion was made this week by Amuriat Oboi Patrick, the chair of a science and technology commission set up last year by the parliament of Uganda to do precisely that.

Speaking at an international workshop in Helsinki, Finland, on ‘Science, Technology and Innovation — a Parliamentary Perspective’, Oboi said that if such committees were set up across the African continent, they could strengthen their effectiveness by establishing a network to share knowledge and experience.

And he told those attending the workshop, jointly organised by the Finnish parliament and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), that there was a strong case for creating a similar global network to propagate good practice in handling science and technology at the parliamentary level.

Oboi said that all African countries needed to recognise that science and technology were key factors in securing their development. Furthermore science and technology needed to be supported both through their contributions to individual economic sectors, and as a sectoral activity in themselves.

“This was the thinking behind that committee that I chair when it was set up last year,” said Oboi. “There was a feeling in the Ugandan parliament that we need to give a new focus to science and technology.”

The Ugandan committee has 15 members, and one its main responsibilities is to look at legislative proposals that have a scientific component to them. “Our job is to examine these bills, interact with the scientific committee, and advise parliament accordingly,” said Oboi.

“At the same time, we also seek to ensure that there is provision for promoting science and technology capacity within individual ministries,” he told the Helsinki meeting, which was attended by about 50 parliamentarians from around the world.

Oboi said it was important to realise that, in addition to inadequate investment in science and technology, a further problem was limited collaboration and information exchange within and beyond the continent of Africa

“The challenge for we parliamentarians in Africa is to ensure that those of our colleagues who have not recognised the need for standing committees of science and technology embrace the idea,” he said.

At present, he pointed out, although a significant number of countries in Africa — including Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya — have such committees, there are many who do not. As a result, they lack a political focus for parliamentary discussion of the role of science and technology in promoting development.

The creation is also “long overdue” of a pan-African network of parliamentary good practice in science and technology, he added. “Africans needs to wake up and work together to ensure that, as a continent, they are developing the field of science and technology.”

“Unfortunately at present African committees on science and technology lack both experience and knowledge. This calls for constant interaction between our parliamentary committees, and for training African parliamentarians about the interactions between science and society.”

Oboi's proposals were supported by Mozambique's minister for research and higher education, Lídia Arthur Brito, who said that a forum in which best practice in science and technology could be shared was a “great idea”.

Brito suggested, for example, that the proposal might be taken up in discussions of the scientific components of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which will be headed by Mozambique this year as the leader of the African Union.

There was also support from Oboi's fellow member of the Ugandan parliament Johnson Nkuuhe, who pointed out that although many argued that the main problem facing African science was a lack of sufficient resources, equally important was a strategy for spending this money effectively. “If you give a poor man a lot of resources when he has no plan, the resources are wasted,” he said.

That made sharing knowledge important. “We live in a knowledge-based world, and the proposed networks would be an opportunity not only to share knowledge and information between parliamentarians, but also to help bring science to bear on the issues of everyday life.”

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