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[ABUJA] The African Union (AU) is taking a controversial lead in coordinating large science and technology programmes on the continent.

Although the move has been broadly welcomed, critics fear that too tight a hold by the AU may stifle progress.

Hakim Elwaer, the AU director of human resources, science and technology, told a meeting of the African Cluster on Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria, that African research programmes have been operating "at random" and that duplication was a problem.

"A number of agencies and bodies have been racing and competing towards the implementation of different activities and projects. Most of these were aligned only with their own agendas," he said

Last year, Elwaer's office was in dispute with the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) science secretariat after the two pursued projects to measure the science and technology expenditure in African countries separately.

Now observers say that NEPAD has been "brought to heel" and the dominant spirit is one of cooperation between the two.

Elwaer said that the cluster — a forum set up by his office earlier this year to coordinate pan-African science activities — would be a "harmonising mechanism" to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Through the cluster, the AU will also have more oversight over the implementation of the African Consolidated Plan of Action for science adopted by science ministers in 2005, which provides a blueprint for scientific development in Africa. Delegates attending the meeting welcomed the lead taken by the AU. "For the first time, there is an effort to be coordinated in Africa," said Sospeter Muhongo, director of the African arm of the International Council of Science.

However, Muhongo warned that too tight a hold by the AU might stifle progress. His words echoed concerns raised prior to the meeting by senior commentators who accused the AU of harming enthusiasm for science in Africa by exerting too much central control over programmes (see Africa Analysis: Federal or regional science policy?).

Mohamed Elarbi Aouani, director of the North Africa Biosciences Network, said: "The main thing that we need to think about is how to make use of what has already been achieved on the continent".

Other delegates expressed concern over the AU Commission's ability to perform its coordinating role effectively, considering that its science division has a reputation for failing to communicate even its own activities.

Elwaer agreed that his department’s administrative capacity is an issue. “Does the AU Commission have the capacity to do this? The direct answer is no. But we are mobilising resources to deal with this,” he said.