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As African science ministers prepare to meet in Burundi, Linda Nordling asks what has happened to the idea of a pan-African science fund.

Next month (1–5 June), African science ministers and policymakers will gather in Burundi for a bureau meeting of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST). They will take stock of progress on continental projects since their last meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, last December.

Six months is a long time in policymaking, so there should be plenty to report. But it seems that at least one high-profile project has fallen by the wayside.

In January we seemed only months away from seeing some progress on an African fund for science, technology and education (see Idea for pan-African science fund gains ground).

The fund features highly in the continent's 2005 science plan, the Consolidated Plan of Action. The fund is intended as a central repository for science development aid that ensures money is spent in a coordinated way and in accordance with continental policies.

In Abuja, AMCOST's bureau members welcomed steps towards the fund and urged the African Union Commission (AUC) "to expedite the process in consultation with key stakeholders". And earlier this year, the African Development Bank (ADB) and the AUC said they were investigating the practicalities of raising money for the fund and hosting it at the bank.

A feasability study was due to be completed in March — in time to share the results at the Burundi meeting. But it seems work on the study has stalled. With just days to go before the meeting, the ADB's science and education manager told SciDev.Net that he knew of no such work being undertaken.

Change at the top

Recent staff changes at the ADB and AUC could be partly to blame for the project falling through the cracks. The past few months have seen new senior staff in the science divisions at both organisations.

In Abuja, the fund's biggest optimist was the AUC director of science and technology, Hakim Elwaer. But weeks after the meeting he was moved to lead the AUC's directorate for human resources, finance and administration. Brenda Vera Ngosi, the former administration director, took over Elwaer's job in the science division and is still trying to find her feet.

Meanwhile, Sibry Tapsoba, the ADB manager responsible for science last year, has also left his post. Speaking to SciDev.Net this month he said there had been "delays" with the fund's feasibility study, and that the AUC had failed to provide documentation needed for it to proceed.

It is unclear whether work on the pan-African fund has been scrapped, shelved or just delayed a bit — the AUC could not be reached to comment officially about the status of the project.

But the fund's lack of progress is likely to fuel the perception, held by many in the African science policy community, that continental policies are not being efficiently implemented.

"Things are just not moving in a straight line, in my opinion," says Umar Bindir, director general of Nigeria's National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, who hosted the Abuja meeting. "The functioning of the whole structures of science and technology at the African Union needs to be fully discussed and coordinated," he added.

Some good news

To be fair to the AUC, there are other projects that are moving forwards more smoothly. The African Research Grants Programme — one of the 'lighthouse projects' drawn up in collaboration with the European Union — seems to be on track and will form the focus of the Burundi meeting.

The grants programme will offer African researchers 36 million euros through annual calls for proposals over three consecutive years. These will cover a range of fields including agriculture, energy and water. The first call for proposals is due in November this year (see Europe backs African research grants project).

Another project still moving forward is the Pan-African Intellectual Property Organisation (PAIPO), for which a revised governance proposal is likely to be presented to the AMCOST bureau. The first draft was rejected in Abuja because it proposed a new ministerial council on intellectual property that the bureau found impractical (see Delay to intellectual property plan for Africa).

Watch and see

Perhaps the continuity problems that staff changes cause were to be expected and will be resolved with time. Ngosi told SciDev.Net that change was a natural part of an organisation's life and a potential force for good.

But she and her colleagues will have their work cut out to prove that the change at the helm of the AUC's science directorate — the second such shift in less than two years — will not cause lasting damage.

Deciding what to do about the pan-African fund for science, technology and education would be a good place to start.

Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.