Earlier this 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. This year's winner, Julie Makani, is working to save thousands of Tanzanians from sickle-cell disease (SCD).
scientific research must become as much a part of Africa's long-term development as building roads, vaccinating children and improving education
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.
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.
As foreign secretary elect of the Royal Society, I am determined to engage with Africa to help address such issues; a determination shared by the current foreign secretary, Lorna Casselton. My starting point will be to ask scientists in African countries what they need to become part of the international scientific community. My experience with Ethiopia has taught me the importance of listening to African scientists, rather than telling them what to do.
The work of the African national science academies is a crucial part in the jigsaw. Last month I met representatives from 13 out of the 17 academies: it was a chance to learn from each other about communicating scientific priorities to governments and policy-makers, something that can truly save lives.
A case in point was the catastrophic failure of scientific evidence to inform policy in South Africa at the turn of the century. Thabo Mbeki, the country's president at the time, supported the Duesberg hypothesis – the belief that various non-infectious factors such as recreational and pharmaceutical drug use are the cause of AIDS and that HIV is a harmless passenger virus. It is estimated that his policies caused an additional 330,000 deaths in South Africa over the eight years to 2007 because of delay in the provision of antiretroviral drugs.In 2007, the Academy of Science of South Africa released an influential report on HIV/AIDS, TB and nutrition which gained international recognition and helped to shift South Africa's public HIV policy back to the mainstream. The academy has since produced a wide variety of policy reports and is now an important independent adviser to the government.
This emphasises just how vital the academies can be, both supporting and building on the strengths of their scientific communities and using their position to bridge the gap between science and society. By acting as champions for science, they are able to demonstrate the value of investment in it and create an in-country demand for it.
In the UK, the case for the public funding of science revolves around it being an engine for economic growth. My African colleagues are keen to make a similar case, as well as demonstrate that high-quality research underpins their ability to respond to issues such as healthcare, sustainable agriculture and clean water.
Academies also have an important role in nurturing the next generation of researchers. The Royal Society supports promising young researchers in the UK as the potential scientific leaders of tomorrow. It believes a similar approach will be effective in Africa. As in the UK, African scientists also need to engage with the public and stimulate a wider interest so that young people are motivated to study science and pursue scientific careers.
We cannot tell Africa what science it needs to do but we can help it to develop that agenda. It has to be set by its public, policy-makers, governments and scientists together. Despite the many hurdles ahead, one thing is certain: scientific research must become as much a part of Africa's long-term development as building roads, vaccinating children and improving education.
I find this article important for policy discourse in Africa at the moment. It was first published in November 2011. The author is Martyn Poliakoff is a research professor in chemistry at the University of Nottingham, UK, honorary professor at Moscow State University, Russia, and honorary member of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2002 and takes over as its foreign secretary at the end of this month.