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It's academic

The development of scientific academies could help to put science to work in Africa.

The medical, scientific and environmental challenges facing the continent of Africa can seem simply overwhelming. Some of them, such as the provision of health care and basic scientific education, are bound to be expensive to address. But others could be tackled by less expensive and more subtle means: the development of properly functioning scientific academies in African nations.

The US National Academy of Sciences, under its former president Bruce Alberts, began a laudable, long-term project to build up the prowess of such academies in three African nations: Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. But as a meeting in Amsterdam of African academy officials heard earlier this month, rapid progress could be made in other countries too, if scientists, government officials and donor nations would step up to the plate.

Self-elected bodies of accomplished scientists make a significant contribution to public discourse in most wealthy nations. In Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, for example, academies have long played a broadly productive role in raising the level of public discussion on technical issues. They also provide governments with advice on matters as diverse as public transport and nuclear-waste disposal.

There is an opportunity, in the rapidly developing polities of modern Africa, for similar academies to emerge there. The existing academies have had little influence. They were not involved, for example, in shaping the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), an important collaboration between Africa's governments whose plans include the creation of research centres and networks to tackle continent-wide woes, such as malaria and poor water supply.

This lack of clout has been equally apparent at the national level. In 2002, for example, when Zambia decided to reject food aid from the United States on the grounds that it contained genetically modified maize, its president Levy Mwanawasa appealed on television for the country's scientists to help him out. The broadcast was the first Zambia's science academy knew of his interest, as there was no established channel for communication between the academy and his government in Lusaka.

There is no good reason why this state of affairs should persist. Academies are not particularly expensive to run, and they already exist in many African countries. Although their membership is small and their expertise is in many cases limited, there are areas in which they could be helping their respective governments right now. What is often missing are the political skills needed to get such advice heard, in government or in the media.

“Determination from scientists to make their voices heard could go a long way towards bringing their expertise to bear on African problems.”

The participants in the National Academy's ten-year project, supported by $20 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are already showing the way ahead, particularly with regard to health issues. In Uganda, for example, scientists will be trained to work effectively with media outlets to get their message across, and regular meetings will be arranged between researchers, businesses, government officials and politicians to discuss their responses to malaria.

For this model to make headway, of course, political leaders need to be convinced of its value. That will only happen in nations with leaders who are genuinely accountable to their electorates, and where a reasonably free press permits public discussion of the issues.

Progress on both these fronts remains patchy, but scientists can strengthen their prospects of being heard by working to build up the effectiveness of their own academies, while finding proactive means of getting their message out to politicians, the media and the wider public. Greater expertise will then be brought to bear, particularly with regard to pressing African issues, such as standards in education at all levels.

Even in the best of circumstances, it is extremely difficult to get politicians to listen to independent scientific advice. African capitals do not enjoy the best of circumstances. Yet the political situation in many of these capitals is fluid, and determination from scientists to make their collective voices heard could go a long way towards bringing their expertise to bear on African problems.

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It's academic. Nature 439, 763–764 (2006).

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