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African scientists must match rekindled enthusiasm for professional societies with a new commitment to networking, says Linda Nordling.

African physics got a facelift this month with the launch of the African Physical Society (APS) in Dakar, Senegal (12 January). The APS promises to promote research collaboration on the continent and beyond, to lobby for funding and nurture young talent.

Two more physical societies — the African Astronomical Society and the Optics Photonics Society of Africa — are also in the pipeline and pan-African societies in other fields such as chemistry and engineering are springing up across the continent.

But while these networks have strong support from scientific societies in developed countries, particularly the United States and United Kingdom, they still face an uphill challenge to raise the money and memberships they will need to fulfil their ambitions.

Networking needs

Professional networking is an important part of being a scientist. In large countries such as the United States, researchers flock to the annual general meetings of societies such as the American Geophysical Union to meet colleagues face to face.

African researchers are even more isolated than their US counterparts, so the potential benefit of professional networks is easy to see.

Professional networks provide a 'glue' to hold science together, explains Liz Bell, head of policy and external affairs at the UK's Physiological Society. In the UK they are sometimes the only constant in researchers' careers as they move between jobs, countries or even continents.

In Africa, professional societies could help establish pan-African research collaborations — a key ambition of continental policy organs such as the African Union. They could also provide scientists with a powerful platform for engaging with policymakers, and with science enjoying an upswing in Africa in recent years, it is not surprising that new learned societies are mushrooming on the continent.

But many could struggle to survive. Last October, Yonas Chebude, treasurer of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry (FASC), said his society suffers from many problems, including limited funds, ineffective communication among member societies, too few societies joining and a lack of administrative staff.

Funding is often a major constraint. Travel is expensive on the African continent — a flight from Nairobi to Windhoek can set you back more than one from Nairobi to London. African academics also struggle with slow and unreliable Internet connections, and few academics feel able to spare the membership fees professional societies must charge to support their secretariats.

Support from abroad

So where has the funding for Africa's resurgent networks come from? Often, support comes as a partnership between local professional societies and developed country ones. The private sector also contributes.

For example, the United Kingdom's Royal Society of Chemistry — supported by agri-business Syngenta and the British-Dutch company Unilever — helped set up the Pan Africa Chemistry Network (PACN) in 2007. PACN supports local capacity building by funding conferences and supporting African researchers. It links with FASC and other chemistry networks such as the Southern and Eastern African Network for Analytical Chemists and the African Association of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Meanwhile, the mining company Anglo-American, the David and Elaine Potter Foundation and Schlumberger, an oilfield services provider, bankroll the Africa–UK Engineering for Development Partnership, an initiative led by the Africa Engineers Forum, the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering and the UK's Institution of Civil Engineers.

Yet despite professional networks' potential for helping build scientific capacity in Africa, the big development funders like the World Bank and national aid agencies seem reluctant to support them.

Two World Bank meetings in Washington, in 2007 and 2009, on building scientific capacity in developing countries were attended by scientists, politicians and aid agencies, but few professional societies were invited.

Insular attitudes

But funding is not the only issue. Even if more funding comes on stream, it remains to be seen whether the new initiatives will mature into sustainable networks that encourage real research collaboration.

For professional societies to flourish, African researchers must embrace a new networking mentality. "In Africa, the problem in the past has been a lack of leadership and organisation across language barriers and institutions," says Paul Amuna, a Ghanaian nutritionist at the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom, who is currently involved in creating an African Nutrition Society. "The effective growth, development and sustainability of learned societies depends on good leadership, a shared vision, inclusiveness and mentoring."

Historically, university professors have tended to sit like kings in their castles, jealously guarding their positions and their (admittedly extremely limited) funding.

These insular attitudes, together with funding constraints, are the underlying reason why earlier professional societies, set up after independence in many African countries, failed to thrive. Not even continent-wide societies have evolved into the lynchpins of networking, training and lobbying that today's societies are aiming for.

Africa has a good track record in setting up new collaborations, institutions and policies, but a worse one on implementing or sustaining them. Initiatives like APS could prove an exception — but only if African researchers become more proactive about networking.

Success is certainly not guaranteed, as shown by the surprise among attendees of the APS launch in Dakar, when told that the new society's predecessor, the Society of African Physicists and Mathematicians (SAPAM), had existed for over 25 years.

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, the Guardian, Nature and others.