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[LONDON] Britain and Canada have agreed to collaborate on a programme of research that will be carried out largely by developing country scientists on the control of smoking.

The UK's Department for International Development will provide a £1 million (US$1.88 million) grant to cover the costs of the research. The administration of the programme, however, will be carried out by Canada's International Development Research Centre.

The new initiative was announced today (31 January) by Hilary Benn, the UK's secretary of state for international development, who described it as an example of the way the development agencies can collaborate in supporting science capacity building in developing countries.

The announcement was made on the opening day of a two-day meeting in London organised jointly by the British and Canadian governments under the title 'Building Science & Technology Capacity with African partners'.

"Five million people die every year from tobacco use — that's roughly as many as from AIDS and malaria combined," said Benn. 

Describing how science "can help save lives, improve lives, and change the world for the better," Benn said he had recently witnessed this in the destruction caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. "We know that science and an early-warning system could have saved many lives," he said.

"If Africa could put its own life-saving skills to full use we would see many more such benefits," he added, pointing out that while rich nations could help the developing world with more aid and debt relief, and with better trade, "Africa can help by dealing with conflict and creating effective states committed to good governance". 

Central to all this was a commitment to capacity building. "Local science and technology capability supports developing country governments as they make important decisions about what policy to follow, and where to spend public money," said Benn. "These decisions are based not on hunches, but on knowledge and evidence. More than that, science is a vital ingredient of a society that is open and inquisitive, but also structured and rational."

The UK Department for International Development, partly as the result of a recent parliamentary inquiry, was already committed to increase its support for capacity building efforts "but no country can do this on its own", he said, pointing to the new grant on tobacco control as a way in which it was seeking to work with other agencies.

Benn pointed to the recent experience of India and China in benefiting from having built an indigenous science and technology capacity, saying that their investment in science was an important reason that they were making progress in lifting their citizens out of absolute poverty.

"These examples show the benefits of developing country governments embracing science and technology," he said. "It's not just drugs or crops or equipment that changes things, but the capacity to develop and use them."

Benn said that the challenge facing African scientists was to demonstrate to their own governments the links between science and technology and improving the lives of millions of their fellow citizens. In the same way, both donors and their partners in the developing world needed to see science and technology capacity in the context of wider government capacity.

"This year, more than ever, fighting poverty is a global priority. To fight poverty, we need science — and for science, we need capacity building. For African scientists, as for scientists everywhere, if they have the tools and the means then they will finish the job. And it's our job to help them do it."

Link to full text of the minister's speech

Click here for SciDev.Net's coverage of the 31 January - 2 February meeting 'Building Science & Technology Capacity with African partners'

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