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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 July, 2005, 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK
Science 'key to African future'
By Michelle Martin
BBC radio science unit

Africa globe (SPL)
Scientific innovation is essential for economic growth
If all the aid from Live Aid was spent on agricultural colleges rather than relief, Ethiopia would not be in difficulties today.

So says Professor Calestous Juma, co-ordinator of the UN's Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation.

Professor Juma is among many experts who are stressing the need to improve science research inside Africa, including forging more partnerships with UK research centres.

"Scientific collaborations with British universities will do more for Africa than distributing food aid," he tells this week's Material World programme on BBC Radio 4.

In 2003, an African Union plan of action stated that 1% of GDP should be spent on science research. But so far, the only country to achieve this goal is South Africa.

One of the main challenges facing the continent is the lack of research inside African universities, which have traditionally concentrated on education.

Many governments also remain unconvinced of the importance of scientific innovation in creating economic growth.

Directed research

Experts point to other global examples where research in science and technology has saved national economies.

"Forty years ago, many Asian countries were in a similar situation," explains Professor Juma. "We have to look to places like Taiwan and India and forge a new model where African universities give birth to businesses, and businesses create their own universities."

In a handful of countries this is starting to happen. Zambia's biggest internet service provider, ZAMNET, was spawned in a university physics department. Nigeria has prioritised space research and launched its own satellite.

Helping to build scientific expertise will do for Africa what the invention of the electric guitar did for Bob Geldof
Prof Calestous Juma
To increase this trend, the UK's Commission for Africa report, published in March, recommends the international community donate $3bn over 10 years to create African centres of excellence in science and technology.

Rather than mimicking the broad subject base of Western universities, these research centres would focus on practical solutions to the countries' problems.

Agriculture, conservation and medical science feature high on the agenda, with genetics seen as key to improving the continent's nutrition and health.

Cutting-edge biotechnology and genomic projects could improve disease resistance in crops and provide new diagnostic tools for tropical diseases.

Coming back

However, the current paucity of research facilities is leading talented graduates to leave for better careers abroad.

The brain drain of doctors from Sub-Saharan Africa was highlighted in a recent report in the Lancet.

In Ghana, for example, 60% of doctors trained during the 1980s have left the country. Currently, there are only nine doctors for every 100,000 people in Ghana. In the UK there are 160.

If they do come back, scientists often find it hard to readjust.

"When they return, many find themselves misfits," explains Professor Judi Wakhungu, executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

"Often they've been exposed to new, dynamic ways of teaching science. But the conservative infrastructure inside African universities prevents them from applying what they've learnt."

A surprising success story in the battle against brain drain comes from Rwanda.

Waste not

Many migrant scientists and doctors have received personal phone calls from the president, tempting them back to the country with large salaries and high-profile research projects.

Since the Rwandan genocide, the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology has played a vital role in the country's reconstruction.

It specialises in sustainable development and is gaining an international reputation for innovation.

The institute was recently awarded a global environment award for a prison project that converts methane gas from inmates' toilet waste into cooking fuel.

Calestous Juma is hoping that other countries follow this lead.

"Helping to build scientific expertise will do for Africa what the invention of the electric guitar did for Bob Geldof."

Material World is broadcast on Thursday 7 July at 1630 on BBC Radio 4 and is available to listen again after transmission via the programme website.


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