Nature 427, 577 (12 February 2004) | doi:10.1038/427577b

Kofi Annan backs call for science push in developing countries

Declan Butler

Scientific academies worldwide are calling for the establishment of two funds to boost research efforts in poor countries.

The InterAcademy Council — a coalition of 90 academies, including the US National Academy of Sciences — delivered the idea last week in a report to Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN).

The report, Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology, slams governments for failing to get behind laboratories, institutions and policies in developing countries that could serve as powerful engines for their economic development.

It recommends that a Global Institutional Fund be set up to support 20 centres of national or regional excellence over periods of between five and ten years, selected on the basis of the quality of their science, independence, management calibre and relevance to the needs of their regions. A second Global Program Fund would operate a competitive grant system, with international referees assessing proposed joint projects between laboratories in rich and poor countries.

The funds would be supported by contributions from governments, foundations and existing international organizations, although the scale of their support is not specified.

Annan, who chaired a debate to discuss the recommendations at the UN headquarters in New York, welcomed the report and said he would work with its authors to implement their proposals.

He said his top priority was the application of science and technology in agriculture: "I challenge the scientific community to ask why Africa is the only continent not to have had a green revolution."

The 161-page report features an exhaustive list of initiatives that it says would boost science and innovation in poor countries. "A lot of what it says ought to have already happened, but it's got to be restated," says Peter Bruns, vice-president for grants and special programmes at the Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But he cautions that initiatives must be driven by existing research institutions, not by creating additional bureaucracies.