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[JOHANNESBURG] Ministers of science from across Africa are being asked this week to back a proposal that their nations increase spending on research and development to at least one per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) over the next seven years.

The commitment is expected to be made at the end of a week-long Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology, organised by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which opened in Johannesburg, South Africa, today (3 November).

Some critics argued that even this goal is too low, pointing out that most developed nations spend between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP on research and development. "One per cent doesn't even buy an incubator," says a Sudanese delegate. "We must go for three per cent.”

But the NEPAD secretariat, aware of the danger of setting its sights too high, is investing its attention in policy enforcement rather than ambitious goals. It is likely to set a deadline of one year for the creation of a draft Comprehensive Strategic Framework and Action Plan (CSFAP) that will seek to persuade 53 participating countries to meet — if not surpass — the 1 per cent milestone within seven years.

Under the umbrella of the African Union, a 'political space' for promoting scientific and technological advancement is likely to be kept open, as ministers are expected to agree to meet every two years to review their progress.

In addition, the responsibilities of NEPAD's voluntary African Peer Review Mechanism, originally designed to monitor political and economic reforms, are likely to be extended to include compliance with both public and private science funding targets.

Although there have been more than three decades of attempts to kickstart science in Africa, many are optimistic that the new initiative, which is being spearheaded by NEPAD’s new Forum on Science and Technology, stands a better chance of succeeding than its predecessors.

Alex Tindimubona, a Ugandan-born quantum chemist who works as a scientific affairs officer with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia says that the main difference has been the ending of the apartheid regime in South Africa. "Previous efforts got bogged down in the non-liberation of Southern Africa," he says.

John Mugabe, science and technology advisor to the NEPAD secretariat, describes the new initiative as "a radical departure". In the past, he says, the primary constituency for discussions of the need to support research was scientists and science institutions. “Here, it's politicians; promoting science and technology requires political capital, which has been lacking.”

According to Mugabe, a second difference with past efforts to promote science is the coherence of the new initiative. " Past initiatives have been scattered," he says. “This is founded on sub-regional institutional arrangements."

A third factor, he adds, is that there has been a change in mood. "Internationally, science and technology have acquired new prominence. We now live in a knowledge economy."

The mood at the opening of this week’s conference was certainly upbeat, especially when discussing the NEPAD flagship programmes. Although the idea of building a 'political space' for science may be rather abstract, the African BioSciences Facility, launched last week in Nairobi, Kenya, is considerably more concrete (see Nairobi centre chosen to boost biosciences in Africa).

September saw the launch in Cape Town of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (see Pan African maths institute open its doors), and an Africa Laser Centre will open at the end of the conference.

A further study of innovation hubs and technology incubators is to be carried out, with a report scheduled for completion within six months. And human resources have not been overlooked.

Wiseman Nkuhlu, chairperson of the NEPAD steering committee, emphasises the need to link with Africa's greatest export: its trained people. "Africa has been producing scientists," he notes. "The tragedy is that they are not in Africa. They are somewhere else."

Although the shortage of scientists on the continent is well known, the actual details have never been quantified. A key feature of NEPAD's programme will therefore be an audit of existing human capital in science, engineering and technology, requested within nine months.

Responding to criticism of South Africa from other African countries for being the major driving force behind NEPAD, Tindimubona says: "Maybe South Africa is pushing, but someone has to push. This train cannot move by itself.”

NEPAD is keen to see science help address the many challenges that it has set itself, such as eradicating poverty, improving health services, ensuring food security, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, defeating the malaria parasite, halting armed conflict and providing universal primary education.

But Rob Adam, director general in South Africa's Department of Science and Technology, sounds a warning note about linking science too tightly to the broader aims in other NEPAD programmes. "We can't devalue science," he said. "It has its own dynamics."

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