Thursday, March 29, 2012

The case for science in Africa

Africa faces serious problems – droughts and famines, infectious diseases and a shortage of good housing, to name a few. Each country also faces unique challenges, from the recent conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to exceptionally high HIV infection rates in South Africa.
Filomena Anjos, a Mozambican scientist 
Earlier last year, science ministers from the continent agreed to start an "African decade of science". Financial resources are scarce, however, and the need to address critical problems urgent. How do governments juggle spending on science with humanitarian needs?
There are examples of excellent science in Africa which may provide the answer. The UK's science academy, the Royal Society, has for the past six years recognised the work of young scientists from the continent through its Pfizer award. Last year's winner, Julie Makani, is working to save thousands of Tanzanians from sickle-cell disease (SCD).
Something that has struck me about Makani is her extensive links to researchers inside and outside Africa. Such collaboration is likely to be the linchpin of further scientific success in Africa: researchers there need to be able to identify problems and then engage with peers in Europe, Asia and the US to find solutions. The Leverhulme-Royal Society Africa Awards for collaborative research projects between the UK and research institutions in Ghana or Tanzania help support this.
Pledges and reality
Africa has been of special interest to me since my son was a volunteer in Ethiopia under the VSO scheme in 2003. As a scientist I can see the benefit that science could bring. But I am also conscious that it is difficult for African governments to justify funding a lot of basic research.
Young African scientists at work
For example, in 1980, as part of the Lagos Plan of Action adopted by the Organization of African Unity – the African Union's predecessor – African governments pledged to spend 1 per cent of GDP on R&D, a goal that was restated in 2003. However, of the 54 member nations of the African Union, only South Africa, Uganda and Malawi have achieved anything close to this.
Most African countries get the majority of their R&D budgets from overseas, mainly from philanthropists, non-governmental organisations, aid agencies and traditional funders such as the Wellcome Trust. There is a need for this, but some might argue that it prevents the nations from choosing their own research priorities.

This article is by Martyn Poliakoff, a research professor in chemistry at the University of Nottingham, UK,  and honorary member of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2002 and took over as its foreign secretary at the end of November last year. 
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