African science: now is the time to deliver

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Next January, the heads of member states of the African Union will meet to discuss science and technology in what will be a unique opportunity to support the continent’s scientific renaissance.

In 2005, ministers and senior government officials from a broad range of African countries met in Senegal to discuss what should be done to enhance science and technology capacity on their continent. They endorsed the Consolidated Science and Technology Plan of Action worth more than US$160 million, which sets out an ambitious, but by no means unachievable set of projects to boost African science (see Support urged for US$160m plan for African science).

The projects listed in the plan range from biodiversity research to laser technology. Each is intended to be an Africa-led initiative, based on the conviction that this is necessary for proper integration into Africa’s efforts to tackle its own problems and economic needs. The projects would operate at either a regional or continental level, complementing the parallel efforts of national governments to boost science and technology.

In some ways putting together the shopping list — and even generating enthusiasm from potential external donors — has proved to be the easy part. More challenging is persuading Africa’s leaders that joint investment in science and technology capacity is essential for the future prosperity of their countries, and that the ways proposed of achieving this are realistic.

A unique opportunity for making that case will come at the beginning of 2007. The next summit meeting of the heads of states of the African Union, scheduled for January in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, will be titled ‘Scientific Research, Technology and Innovation for Africa’s Socio-Economic Development’. The hope is that this event will generate the full-blooded political commitment needed to put the action plan into effect.

But this will require more than crowd-pulling platitudes and expressions of good will. It will require an awareness among African politicians of the difficulties of putting even the most modest of the proposals into effect. And all sides — including Africa’s scientific and non-governmental organisations — must commit to ensuring that these challenges are adequately met.

The right timing

The timing of the African Union summit is certainly appropriate. The last few years have seen the international community increasingly acknowledge that science and technology play a key role in achieving development objectives — a role that has been submerged in the previous two decades as the focus shifted to poverty-reduction strategies, without recognising that these still require a significant input of scientific knowledge.

It is now accepted, for example, that scientific and technological capacity is necessary to achieve the widely endorsed Millennium Development Goals. Similarly, last year’s report of the Commission for Africa, half of whose members come from Africa, described support for science and technology as imperative (see Science capacity "imperative" for Africa’s development).

This awareness is reflected in the new willingness of major donors and investment institutions to support science projects. Last month, for example, the World Bank announced a US$30 million low cost loan to Uganda to boost its scientific and technological infrastructure (see US$30m ‘millennium science initiative’ for Uganda). Equally significant, the African Development Bank has indicated a renewed readiness to fund science-related projects.

In parallel to all this, individual technical agencies within the United Nations have shown themselves willing to help build an appropriate scientific and technological infrastructure for Africa. Indeed, these agencies are expected to publicly express this commitment at the summit, and demonstrate how they intend to work towards the broader goal.

Need for political buy-in

But in order for these gestures of support to become meaningful, two requirements must be met. First, African leaders must collectively buy into the idea that strategic investment in science and technology is a high political priority, and not merely a device for leveraging more aid funds out of the international community.

Some countries, Botswana, Mozambique, Nigeria and Rwanda to name just a few, have already taken this message on board, and have made domestic commitments to integrate science and technology into social and economic planning. But others remain lukewarm, if not uninterested (see Zambian science slammed in parliamentary review).

The message at the African Union summit will be that science and technology are essential to address problems of health and hunger, and to provide jobs by boosting economic growth (an argument that may be persuasive to many).

But this needs to be more than an argument of faith. Those preparing to put this message across must ensure their case is fully documented. Their communications with African leaders must be accessible and meaningful, stressing the need for urgent investment, but also pointing out that the returns from such investment will not appear immediately, and certainly not within the four- to five-year time span over which most governments and politicians tend to operate.

Implementation is key

Second, and equally important, is the need for a realistic implementation plan.

Much of this work has already been done by the secretariat of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology, which has been largely responsible for drawing together the consolidated plan of action.

Officials with the science and technology commission of the New Partnership for African Development have already identified some early priorities. These include a survey of Africa’s current scientific efforts. This essential set of data will identify where needs are greatest, and act as a baseline for measuring future achievements.

In addition, some of the 21 priority areas identified in the plan of action have been clustered into topics that share common characteristics, and could therefore have their funding and implementation tackled jointly. These include a number of biotechnology activities, such as a commitment in principle to develop harmonised regulations across the African Union for introducing new crops.

But many of these projects remain at the discussion stage. The ministers who gather for next year’s summit will want to be sure that their political and, hopefully, financial investments will bear fruit. They need concrete proposals that describe not only the ultimate goals, but set out clear time-schedules for achieving these and show how progress will be measured.

Immediate priorities

None of this is impossible. But those preparing for the summit need to keep their eye firmly on the ball between now and next January if the meeting is to be more than yet another talking-shop.

UNESCO has already taken on the task of co-ordinating the United Nations’ inputs into the summit preparations. Others should also get involved.

Africa’s scientific community, for example, will have an opportunity to develop its case at a meeting of scientists and policy-makers planned for October in Alexandria, Egypt. The meeting will present its recommendations to the African Union summit. These should recognise the need to support science by building effective systems for innovation, and not be restricted to calls for building more laboratories or centres of research excellence.

Non-governmental organisations should also get involved. Too often, those who produce scientific or technical knowledge dominate meetings about science and science policy. Those who use such knowledge should also be heard. Next year’s summit is no exception.

Time is running short. With just over six months to go, there remains considerable uncertainty about exactly what will be on the table in Addis Ababa — and whether it will be in a form that allows heads of states to make sensible political commitments.

All those concerned must ensure that adequate preparations for the meeting are completed in time. If they manage this, the African Union summit could turn out to be a turning point in Africa’s scientific renaissance.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net