A new Ethiopian science academy hopes to inject more science into policymaking. Credit: Punchstock

Ethiopian scientists are fulfilling a decades-old ambition this week by setting up the country's first science academy.

The launch of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (EAS) on 10 April, in the capital Addis Ababa, will bring the country in line with a growing number of African countries establishing such organizations to promote quality in research and offer science advice to governments.

The EAS will start out with a founding membership of around 50 fellows from both the natural and social sciences. New fellows will be elected by the members each year, although the small number of senior academics in the country will limit the membership at first, says Demissie Habte, the academy's newly elected president, a paediatrician who was dean of medicine at Addis Ababa University from 1983–89 and a former World Bank health specialist.

The idea for an Ethiopian academy was first mooted by pioneering scientists in the early 1960s, but political turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s put paid to the plans. The idea was only resurrected a few years ago, driven by researchers at Addis Ababa University with the support of the UK Royal Society.

Growing political interest in science in Ethiopia has helped get the academy off the ground, says Demissie. "There is a much better appreciation in the government for the role science can play in development," he says. The Ethiopian government has also embarked on a plan to build 13 new universities in the country.

However, the academy's funding structure is not yet clear. It has to be approved formally by parliament before it can receive any government funding, which its founders hope will support the body.

Policy support

Demissie says that the academy will support policy-makers by preparing position papers on the challenges facing Ethiopia, such as rapid population growth or water security. He also wants the academy to look into whether the rapid university expansion in Ethiopia is undermining the quality of degrees, as institutions are built faster than qualified staff can be trained to teach in them.

Several African countries have recently set up science academies, including Zambia in 2005, Mauritius in 2007 and Mozambique in 2009. Other nations, including Namibia, plan to launch one in the near future.

African academies have also banded together to publish strategy papers on relevant policy issues. For example, in November 2009, the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI), which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, published a report outlining how millions of lives could be saved on the continent if governments adopted science-based health policies (see 'African academies show how science can save lives').

But few of the continent's academies have so far lived up to their ambitions, says Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), based in Trieste, Italy.

"It's been a very slow process, and a little bit disappointing," he says. In Tanzania, for instance, the academy has been in existence for 4–5 years, he says, but it hasn't matured. "It has only about 25 members, most of whom are old men. They are not moving."

According to Hassan, two issues are holding African academies back. The first is a lack of leadership. "A new academy needs somebody who is prepared to work full time for at least the first three years of the academy's life, and who is skilled in communication and outreach. This is lacking in the majority of Africa's academies," he says.

The second is a failure to connect with and enthuse young scientists, he adds. "The Ethiopian academy should from the beginning try to link up with the best young scientists, who need mentorship and inspiration."

Freedom fighters

Academic freedom — or just freedom of speech — poses another challenge for African academies.

"Academic freedom should definitely be on the agenda for all African academies," says Wieland Gevers, general secretary of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF), which this week issued a statement warning of "new threats to academic freedom" in the country.

ASSAF's 6 April statement follows several high-profile cases of South African academics getting into trouble for airing their views openly, including the suspension in 2008 of Anthony Turton, a government-funded water scientist, after he criticized government policy (see 'South Africa suspends water scientist').

Worse things can befall academics who air unpopular views in other parts of Africa. In Ethiopia for instance, at least 40 professors at Addis Ababa University were fired in 1993 after criticizing the government, accused of having incited students to march in protest of a referendum on the independence of Eritrea, which was supported by the government at the time; some were later imprisoned. A 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group headquartered in New York, found that the government's influence on academic appointments encourages self-censorship in the country's universities.

During the early discussions about the EAS, some academics expressed doubt that the government would offer to fund the new academy if it could not control it directly, says Masresha Fetene, vice-president for research at Addis Ababa University. But the signals from the Ethiopian ministry of science have been positive so far, Masresha says. "Many governments do support their academies while granting them independence, so we are positive that ours will also do so."