Africa needs homegrown science agenda

Business Daily (Nairobi). Equatorial Guinea surprised many people when it volunteered to host the African Observatory for Science, Technology and Innovation (AOSTI) in February last year.  The tiny West African country, better known for its soaring oil revenues and rocky politics than for its science and technology, seemed an unlikely candidate for the facility, which will gather data on Africa’s science, technology and innovation capabilities. 

Its poor internet connectivity also seems at odds with a project that will have to efficiently communicate its findings worldwide.  But such caveats did not stop African Union (AU) presidents from granting Equatorial Guinea the project and welcoming the country’s offer to put $3.6 million on the table.  In truth, they had little choice. According to staff at the AU’s Human Resources, Science and Technology (HRST) department, Equatorial Guinea was the only country to respond to repeated calls for proposals to host the observatory.

The AOSTI is an AU flagship initiative and on the list of Africa-Europe ‘lighthouse projects’ to boost science on the continent.   Although its final structure is not clear, it is expected to collect, store and disseminate data from the AU’s 53 member states on everything from research and development (R&D) spending to the number of PhD students.  It will also monitor the continent’s R&D resources, produce regular progress reports on Africa’s science plans and publish practical guidelines for countries wanting to boost their science capacity.

But a year in, there has been little progress in setting up the facility.   The AU says the main agreement is about to be signed, but so far, Equatorial Guinea has done little to convince sceptics that it is up to the job.  It has failed to attend key AU meetings, including the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology earlier this month and a workshop for the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII) initiative in December.

And in February this year the science policy magazine Research Africa quoted an AU official as saying that Equatorial Guinea’s president, who championed the bid to host the observatory, had bypassed his cabinet and was now having trouble convincing his colleagues to part with the money.  But Vera Brenda Ngosi, the director of the AU’s HRST department, told SciDev.Net that she did not know of such a dispute.

The AU also says a long-overdue AU commission trip to Equatorial Guinea to inspect the observatory’s proposed premises (originally planned for last year, then re-scheduled for this month) will now happen in the next 2-3 months.   The project has other problems too, including overlaps with similar data-crunching initiatives.

The AU expects the observatory to take over ASTII, another AU project.   Run from South Africa, ASTII has been gathering R&D and innovation data from 19 countries, and is due to deliver its first set of data in June.   “They should become one and the same, it’s more cost effective”, says Ngosi.

But getting ASTII officials to relocate from Midrand to Malabo may be easier said than done.   ASTII staff are reluctant to comment on the observatory beyond saying that “it’s political”.

Nor is it clear how the observatory will fit in with either the African Centre for Technology Studies, a think-tank in Kenya that focuses on applying science and technology to development, or with another ‘observatory’ planned by the Ethiopia-based UN Economic Commission for Africa to store information about African science policies, regulations and procedures.

However, the main challenge may be getting African governments to use AOSTI in the way intended.  This is not a given, says Hassan Mshinda, director general of the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology.   Organisations like his, he points out, must be able to show both their governments and citizens that investments in science bring social and economic benefits.   Distant pan-African institutions are not suitable for this.

Standardised indicators like R&D investment or number of patents may mean Africa can be compared with the rest of the world, says Mshinda, but they will not convince poor Africans that this is the best use of their money. Such international institutions may struggle to earn the trust of individual governments, he adds, asking “These African institutions, who are they accountable to?”

The true validation of science investments must take place in-country, in close collaboration with local scientists, he says, adding, “Where are the scientists in Equatorial Guinea?”

Equatorial Guinea deserves credit for volunteering for the job and setting an example in taking ownership of the continent’s science agenda.   But whether that will be enough, without clear leadership and the buy-in of other AU and national organisations, remains to be seen.

This article of the Business Daily (Nairobi), was written by Linda Nordling, a journalist based in Cape Town (South Africa) and specialised in African science policy, education and development.

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