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Winter/Spring 2006 Vol. 6 No. 1



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SPOTLIGHT



Photo by Vanee Vines OUT OF AFRICA: Experts Meet to Discuss Development of African Science Academies

"It takes a village to raise a child" is an African proverb that stresses the importance of strong communities and the power of working together. Likewise, participants at the first annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI) emphasized that the full heft of the continent's scientific enterprise is needed to help decision-makers cultivate sound public policies and programs.

Scholars must be more-active members of society, work harder to engage government officials, and help meet the need for scientific and technical expertise in policy arenas, concluded roughly 160 leading researchers and government representatives who attended the ASADI conference in Nairobi, Kenya, last November. S&T knowledge in many African countries is disconnected from decision-making -- reducing the research community's opportunities to contribute to policy improvements that would benefit the public at large and boost the continent's standing in the global marketplace. Stronger science academies can contribute positively toward measures that will save lives or improve living conditions by settling key scientific questions on topics such as malaria prevention or agricultural production.

"I think we must stop talking…we talk too much," said conference presenter Lee Yee-Cheong, coordinator of the U.N. Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology, and Innovation. "Merely offering advice is not enough. …I appeal to you: Get your hands dirty."

Said presenter Miriam Were, chair of the African Medical and Research Foundation and of the National AIDS Control Council, both of Kenya: "The bottom line is how you improve the lives of the people."

Participants at the first annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, held in Nairobi, Kenya, November 2005, photos by Vanee Vines
Participants at the first annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, held in Nairobi, Kenya, November 2005, photos by Vanee Vines
Participants at the first annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, held in Nairobi, Kenya, November 2005, photos by Vanee Vines

Supported by a $20 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by the U.S. National Academies, ASADI will be carried out over the next decade and focus on efforts to improve human health in Africa. The science academies of Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa are the initial focal points, receiving financial support as well as technical assistance and training. Discussions at the conference centered on finding ways to harness Africa's S&T enterprise to help leaders fulfill their commitments to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals in areas such as disease prevention and the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. Participants also talked about the challenges of creating science-advisory models that would be workable and cost-effective over time.

All academy representatives seem to agree that the challenge will not be an easy one, stating that many government leaders across Africa question the value of homegrown scientific advice, provide only marginal funding and other support, or are unsure of how to best tap their countries' scientific expertise. At the same time, academies must shed their often elitist attitudes and seek ways to actively serve government and society in a structured, consistent manner, speakers said. Greater diversity is needed within the ranks, too. Memberships are "too old, too male, and too familiar with each other," said Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences. And academies should improve how they communicate scientific information, making it more accessible and useful for politicians and the public. Africa's pipeline of scientists, engineers, and health care professionals has long operated below capacity because of inadequate education systems and the flight of talented scholars to the West.

There are success stories, however. Uganda's academy has worked closely with a government commission on HIV/AIDS, for example.

Using science to tackle basic problems that Africans routinely face must always be the primary goal, other presenters said. Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe, Uganda's former vice president and minister of agriculture, said that researchers often "work like artists who are very independent-minded, who want to do [their] own thing. …This must stop."

More information about the conference and initiative is available online at <national-academies.org/nairobi>. Cameroon's academy will host the 2006 conference in Yaoundé.   -- Vanee Vines



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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences