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With plans for an East African Federation creaking at the seams, is a common science vision for the region unrealistic, asks Linda Nordling.

Science dislikes borders — it thrives on the free flow of ideas and people. Adjacent countries often face common problems that could benefit from joint solutions, so closer integration between five East African countries should be great news for local researchers. But political tensions seem to be hampering efforts to harmonise science policies in the region.

The first East African Community (EAC) was founded in 1967, but fell apart in the late 1970s due to political friction between the original members — Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The trade bloc was revived in 2000, with Burundi and Rwanda joining it in 2007. But almost a decade after the EAC was first revived, there is still no body dedicated to synchronise science policies in the region.

Yet harmonising science and education has been on the EAC's agenda from the start. Its first strategy from 2000 to 2005 emphasised joint research, training and policymaking in science and technology to solve common problems.

And in 2003, following calls by East African scientists for a dedicated body to write regional science policies and encourage collaboration, the EAC announced provisions for an East African Science and Technology Council (EASTECO) to be up and running by July 2004.

Roadblocks to integration

But it seems integration is easier in theory than in practice. Five years on, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania have all bid to host EASTECO, but it is still not operational. An official at Kenya's National Council for Science and Technology says EASTECO is at least one year away from being physically set up. "Come back in a year's time," she said. "There might be some news then."

So what is taking so long? The problem is unlikely to be specific to science, which is rarely a politically sensitive area. More likely, it is related to mounting political tensions dogging wider integration plans for an East African Federation by the middle of the next decade.

The transformation will be gradual, with the EAC first freeing up trade, then opening borders and creating a common currency, and finally becoming a fully-fledged political union with one president on a rotating basis.

With over 120 million people and a GDP of over US$60 billion, the East African Federation would be a 'super-country': the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria, and the continent's fourth biggest economy. But some people doubt it will ever exist.

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda agreed to cut tariffs on trade in 2005. But, according to the East African Business Council, there has been no significant increase in cross-border trade. And Tanzania and Uganda have expressed concern over opening their borders, fearing land grabs by people from the more densely populated Kenya. Tanzania also claims that civil unrest in Kenya, sparked by last year's contested elections, is hampering progress towards an East African Federation.

These grander tensions are likely to be slowing down scientific integration, says Thomas Egwang, executive director of the African Academies of Sciences based in Nairobi, Kenya.

"Regional integration is highly desirable, since we are facing common problems of food security, pollution and disease," he says. Harmonising regulations and practices is especially important, he adds. "Today, a clinical trial from Kenya cannot be compared with one from Uganda." But Egwang thinks regional integration is still "a bit of a pipe dream" because most African leaders simply don't want their power diluted.

People involved in the integration process reject such talk. "Of course there is political will," says Kizito Lubano from the Kenya Medical Research Institute. Lubano represents Kenya in negotiations for an East African Health Research Commission, a regional body similar to EASTECO that will draw up regional health policies and support their implementation. In his opinion, if the political will wasn't there, negotiations such as the one he spearheads would not be taking place.

But unlike its science and technology cousin, Lubano's health commission is being built on an existing initiative — the Regional East African Community Health-Policy Initiative (REACH) — that has been promoting the uptake of health research in policymaking since its inception in 2006.

REACH has already begun identifying regional priority areas for health research. And it is working on introducing evidence-based policymaking in the health sector — for example it has looked into how the knowledge that male circumcision can impede HIV transmission should be taken into account in policymaking.

The health research commission could be set up in June this year, Lubano says. Although he admits that delays in the buy-in from financial backers — including both overseas donors and EAC member states — could mean a longer wait.

Follow the leader

Do the tribulations in East Africa predict trouble for other trade blocs on the continent that want joint science policies?

Regional collaboration is one of the tenets of the continent's joint science plan, the Consolidated Plan of Action. But, with the recent exception of southern Africa which set up a joint science desk earlier this year (see 'Southern African network to integrate S&T research'), progress has been patchy in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The problem could be one of leadership. Where there is an undisputed leader, like South Africa, to provide institutional and financial support, integrating science across a region has been easier.

Perhaps Tanzania and Uganda should bury the hatchet for a moment and allow Kenya — the region's scientific and economic powerhouse — to take the lead on harmonising regulations and promoting joint policymaking. Or maybe Rwanda, whose president, Paul Kagame, has shown real commitment to boosting science and technology in his country, should be allowed to take the lead.

Whatever the solution, unless science integration moves forward in East Africa, the whole region will lose out.