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The foundation set up by software billionaire Bill Gates has agreed to provide US$20 million over the next ten years to promote better decision-making on science-related issues in Africa, particularly those concerning human health.

The money will be channelled through the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Much of it will be used to build up the policy-related activities of three African academies to be selected later this year, in the hope that these will be able to exert similar influence on their governments as the NAS does in Washington.

In addition to strengthening the role of the three selected academies, the money will also be used to develop what the US academy describes as "an alliance of African science academies" through annual symposia and collaborative workshops.

"Understanding the critical importance of basing decisions on sound science and incorporating it into the policy-making process could be an important step forward for many African nations," says Bruce Alberts, president of the NAS, who has long held a deep personal interest in promoting science in developing countries.

"The goal of integrating scientific advice and public policy can best be accomplished by boosting both the capacity and the credibility of the institutions that represent the scientific and medical communities in individual countries."

According to the academy, some of the funds will be used to train academy staff members to plan and conduct scientific studies and major conferences that offer policy guidance, two activities in which the NAS is heavily engaged.

The money, which comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will also be used to raise and manage money from outside sources, to tap 'useful information technology', and to build good relationships with government officials and other stakeholders.

Richard Klausner, executive director of the foundation's global health programme, points out that eliminating global inequities in health provision requires ensuring that the fruits of science, technology and medicine are available to all countries.

"We hope that this important initiative will help achieve the goal of better health for all by engaging the African scientific community in critical African policy decisions," he says.

The science academies in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, as well as the African Academy of Sciences, based in Nairobi, are thought to be leading candidates for involvement in the project. But other bodies are also known to be under consideration.

According to a statement issued by the NAS, the grant will cover activities such as creating a forum in each of the selected academies to bring together representatives from its country's scientific, government, industry and non-government communities in order to incorporate scientific evidence into health policy-making..

The money will also be used to prepare reports giving advice to governments on ways to improve health in Africa, or to hold major events with the same goal. And funds will also be given to improve staff-development opportunities, as well as 'technological, workforce, and material resources' in each of the three partner academies.

"Every country needs an organised way to call upon its own scientific and medical communities for guidance," says Alberts. "The ultimate goal of this initiative is to help each participating academy achieve, by the end of the 10-year period, a well-developed and enduring capacity to provide credible policy advice for its nation."

The NAS has been deeply engaged in recent years in boosting the capacities of science academies throughout the developing world, in particular through its support of the InterAcademy Panel, a body that brings together more than 90 such scientific bodies.

The need to promote mechanisms able to give better advice to governments on science-related issues was also highlighted in the report entitled Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology, published earlier this year by the IAP's sister body, the InterAcademy Council, whose activities are also strongly supported by the NAS.