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African governments back science

At a meeting in Senegal, representatives of over 40 nations adopt a consolidated plan of action

By | October 10, 2005

The governments of more than 40 African countries attending a meeting in Dakar, Senegal, recently (September 30) pledged their support for a $160 million plan to boost science and technology across the continent.

The plan includes 12 flagship programs, ranging from biodiversity studies to space science. The biggest items in the budget are $45 million each for the "safe development and application of biotechnology," and for securing and sustaining water. Other major amounts are earmarked for strengthening the African Laser Center ($20 million) and building a sustainable energy base ($15 million).

In terms of improving policy and innovation, the plan calls for $5 million to be spent on an African Science, Technology and Innovations Indicators Initiative; $450,000 for improving regional cooperation in science and technology; and $350,000 for building a common African strategy for biotechnology.

The plan was adopted by delegates at the 2nd African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology (AMCOST), drawn up under the auspices of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

John Mugabe, executive secretary of NEPAD's commission for science and technology, said there was a positive mood at the meeting, reflecting a surge in political support for science and technology as a tool for development in Africa. "There is an increasing appreciation at various levels," he told The Scientist. "For Africa, it is the recognition that economic growth is not going to be achieved if Africa does not focus on science and technology as a source of productivity."

President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal expressed similar sentiments in his opening address at the meeting. "Africa cannot and should not remain a passive consumer of technologies," he said, "but should fall into step with the rest of the world by developing a productive endogenous research capacity."

In Senegal, for example, the government is devoting 40% of its budget to education, Wade said, and has decided to create a fully-fledged ministry in charge of scientific research and technical and professional training. "I intend to turn Senegal into an emerging country in which development will be based on the effective enhancement of research results," Wade said. Several other African nations have also created science and technology ministries in the last two years alone, Mugabe noted.

The plan brings together several smaller science and technology programs under one umbrella, with a total budget of $157 million over 5 years.

Dhesigen Naidoo, Group Executive for International Cooperation and Resources at South Africa's science ministry, noted that the plan evolved from the grass roots of African science. "The document reflects the aspirations of the African science community plus a very strong sense of pragmatism," he told The Scientist. "I think we have a good balance between what is possible and what is ambitious."

Headway has already been made on the biosciences and water programs, as well as the laser center and a mathematical sciences project, he said. "This new African initiative already has a history, and that history is promising."

African nations are expected to pick up most of the tab for the programs in the plan. "We are already starting to see commitments," Mugabe said. "Governments are indicating what their contributions will be." He noted that the spending on this plan is expected to be on top of a promise from governments to spend 1% of GDP on domestic science and technology.

However there is "continuing uncertainty over how much of this money will materialize," noted the Science and Development Network, a news service funded by the British, Swedish and Canadian governments, among others. Given this, several delegates at the meeting suggested international partners would also need to make substantial contributions, the Web site reported.

Representatives of G8 countries, including the US, Canada and the UK, were also at the meeting, as well as a delegate from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "The really important thing that happened in Senegal is that we've organized ourselves to the point of transition," said Naidoo. "We demonstrated to ourselves as Africans and our international partners that science and technology in Africa isn't just about one or two countries—in fact, the top core is about 25 countries."

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