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[LONDON] Capacity building in science and technology should be an "overarching theme" of recommendations due to be put forward early next year by an international commission on development in Africa, according to the head of Britain's leading scientific organisation.

Delivering his annual address in London today (30 November), Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, expressed concern that science "does not figure as prominently as it should" in the deliberations of the Commission for Africa, set up last year by UK prime minister Tony Blair.

May also urged the British government to make a "substantial investment" in capacity building in science in developing countries, which society officials say they would like to see included in next year's science budget, the details of which are due to be announced in February.

Significantly, however, May suggested that extra funding for capacity building should be handled by the Office of Science and Technology, rather than the Department for International Development (DfID), which has been criticised recently for not doing enough to support science in developing countries.

"African nations should be encouraged and supported to develop successive generations of scientists, who can tackle the indigenous problems they face," said May, who has previously been highly critical of the lack of scientific activities within Britain's own development efforts.

"This process begins in primary school — importantly both for girls and boys — laying the foundations of a good education in scientific thinking. It continues through the training and development of young women and men in secondary school, universities, and so on into business and industry."

According to May, this is the only way in which such countries achieve populations "who recognise the benefits and the limitations of science and technology", not least as manifested in science's core values of "free and open questioning".

May said he acknowledged that the commission was already considering capacity building in science and technology; indeed there are already several references to this area in a consultative document that was published three weeks ago (see Commission seeks proposals for African development).

But he added that the Royal Society felt the commission needed to make capacity building a principal and overarching theme "because it is so crucial to achieving the other objectives".

Royal Society officials say that they were "astounded" when they looked at terms of reference of the Commission for Africa to see virtually no reference to the central importance of science and technology in African development.

The commission is expected to report early next year, and its recommendation will feed directly in to the so-called G8 summit of the leaders of the world's industrialised nations, which takes placed in Scotland in July.

May said in his speech that he has written to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair — who set up the 17-member Commission for Africa last year — offering to put together an advisory group of leading scientists from both the developed and developing worlds to help the commission both with its drafting work, and to implement its recommendations.

"Quite simply, without significant scientific infrastructure and expertise within the poorest countries, it will be difficult — if not impossible — for them to help themselves in finding solutions," said May. "This will make them ever more reliant on aid and assistance from more scientifically developed nations."

Link to the full text of Lord May's speech