Africa Needs Right Balance between Policy-Making and Science-Led Solutions

Article excerpt

BYLINE: David Dickson

Should scientists be on top, or on tap? Those who support the idea that scientists should be "on top" argue that scientists themselves should determine research priorities.

Others argue that researchers involved in publicly-funded science should see themselves as servants of the state. Under this model, the task of scientists is to find the most effective way of meeting priorities set by the political system. As some have put it, "science is too important to be left to scientists".

The optimal solution may lie somewhere between the two. The creative spirit at the heart of scientific enterprise requires a certain degree of autonomy to flourish. But if this spirit is not harnessed to the goals and values of the society that supports it, such support is likely to evaporate.

The challenge is to define processes that balance "science push" and "demand pull". This is one of the tasks that will face the continent's political leaders when they meet at the next summit of the African Union, due to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in January.

Last month, a preparatory meeting in Alexandria in Egypt sought to bring together scientists and policymakers to map a way forward. And over the past two months, contributors to an online discussion group organised by the Science and Development Network website have highlighted some of the topics that need debating. These include the need for knowledge management, Africa-centric solutions, information flow and a model law on biotechnology.

Each of these issues is important, and each requires input from scientists and policymakers.

The scientific community is best placed to define the responses to maximise the production of useful knowledge. And the political community can determine whether these responses are compatible with broader social priorities.

Both communities are developing their perspectives on the science and technology policy issues facing Africa. On the political front, much of this is focused through the activities of the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

Other policy developments are taking place in other institutions, such as the African Development Bank. And this comes on top of the growing interest in science and technology in the finance and economics departments of African states, which see this as a way of joining the global knowledge economy.

Also, there has been growing awareness in the scientific community of the need to get its act together to make the most of new funding opportunities. …