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The leaders of the world's most industrialised nations (G8) have given their joint backing to the development of "centres of excellence" within science and technology institutions in Africa.

In a communiqué issued at end of their annual summit, this year in Gleneagles, Scotland, the G8 leaders also urged support for "networks of excellence" linking institutions of higher education in Africa and in other countries, suggesting that these are needed to help develop "skilled professionals for Africa's private and public sectors".

However, the G8 declined to endorse specific objectives, or place any figures on the amount of money to be spent on activities in these areas.

Nor — as some had been hoping — did they make a broader appeal to encourage greater support for building science and technology capacity on the African continent.

The carefully worded communiqué contrasts with the conclusions of the Commission for Africa, set up last year by British prime minister Tony Blair to review the challenges facing Africa (see Science capacity 'imperative' for Africa's development).

The commission's report, which was presented directly to the G8 leaders, argued that specific action for strengthening science, engineering and technology capacity was "an imperative for Africa".

To achieve these goals, it recommended that the international community should provide up to US$3 billion over ten years to develop centres of excellence in science and technology, including African institutes of technology.

It also proposed that rich countries should commit themselves to providing a combined sum of US$500 million a year over a ten-year period to strengthen universities across the continent.

A statement issued last month by the science academies of the G8 countries — as well as the Network of African Science Academies — also urged strong action (see Africa 'cannot heal without science', say G8 academies).

 The academies' statement predicted that ambitions for Africa "will fail" unless science, technology and innovation are embedded in development plans across the continent. And it called on world leaders to ensure that international aid programmes contain an explicit commitment to building capacity in science, technology and innovation.

A spokesperson for Britain's Royal Society, which had played a key role in putting together the academies' statement, said that the society was "generally content" with the wording of the final communiqué, pointing out that most of the demands listed in the statement "are in there implicitly".

But she added that the academies had been hoping that there might be greater mention of science and technology "as a cross-cutting issue", rather than merely in the context of specific sectors, such as higher education and health.

"That was the message that we had been putting forward, namely that support for capacity building in science and technology affects a range of issues," she said. "We were hoping that the communiqué might reflect a commitment to this approach."

But even though — unlike previous G8 summits — the communiqué issued at the end of the Gleneagles summit does not contain any such broad language about the importance of science and technology in reaching development goals, it still establishes a broad framework within which initiatives to strengthen these activities can take place, particularly in Africa.

For example, although not explicitly suggesting how much money should be spent on activities related to science and technology, it suggests that there should be a significant increase in aid to the African continent, pointing out that several G8 countries have already promised to double their commitment to this over the next few years.

In addition, in a bid to ensure that the content of African development programmes are determined by the continent's own government, it promises to build on the programmes established by the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

The G8 leaders also pledged to continue their work to build an international infrastructure consortium involving the African Union, NEPAD, World Bank and African Development Bank.

Implicit in this are proposals that have been developed within NEPAD for significant number of science-based projects.

The comments on the need for networks and centres of excellence are directly compatible with a ten-year development strategy for African universities that has been drawn up jointly by the Association of African University and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Finally, by endorsing the need for measures to encourage more "enterprise development and innovation", the G8 leaders have given their encouragement to African governments to establish the systems of innovation that many see as crucial to their economic development.

Link to G8 Africa communiqué in full

Link to statement by G8 and African science academies