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Updated On: Monday, 24 September 2018

Money woes undermine pan-African science guidance

Africa’s persistent lack of researchfunding could jeopardise the goals of a planned declaration outlining universal guiding principles for science on the continent, a conference has heard.

The Cape Town Declaration, a document that aims to nail down how science can contribute to African policymaking, must be accompanied by increases in funding for scientific research, the Euroscience Open Forum, held in Toulouse, France, heard today (10 July).

This is because science can only contribute to policymaking if it is actually taking place, a panel of experts was told by members of the audience that included distinguished scientists and activists from the global South. They criticised what they perceived to be an ethics-only declaration.

“The declaration could contribute to the appreciation of science in African governments. It could get us from declaring to acting.”

Flavia Schlegel

“I do not see any commitment to funding,” said Mohammed Hassan, former director of the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS) and currently a vice chair of the Inter Academy Panel (IAP). “The declaration must address this and come up with recommendations, otherwise it will not have any effect.” In 2007, the African Union officially called on all its member states to commit at least 1 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) to supporting science and innovation. However, according to the 2010 African Innovation Outlook, only three countries — Malawi, Uganda and South Africa — have achieved this target. Defending the declaration, the panellists — which included scientists, UN politicians and media representatives — said that creating the document would be a good chance to underline the importance of science to African policymakers, and this could lead to bigger research budgets. “The process could be as important as the result,” said Flavia Schlegel, assistant director-general for natural sciences at UNESCO. “The declaration could contribute to the appreciation of science in African governments. It could get us from declaring to acting.” The Cape Town Declaration is expected to be finalised during the 2021 World Science Forum in South Africa. It was thought up at previous world science forums under the leadership of South Africa. According to the panel, the document will be modelled on the Brussels Declaration on Ethics and Principles for Science, which was launched in 2017 and sets out how scientists can best engage with politicians and the public. This is also one focus of the African declaration. But unlike Europe, where scientific research is supported by sizeable sources of funds such as the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the African continent has no overarching funding to make up for such shortcomings, according to Hassan. However, Philemon Mjwara, the director general of South Africa’s science and technology department, said the declaration could be the impetus scientists need to convince politicians of the value of their work. “[It] could be an interesting case study of how scientists must convince politicians of the benefits of science,” he told the event. Mohammed Yahia, president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, warned that increasing funding would need to come with a strategic spending plan to assist the declaration. “We want to commit the 1 per cent, but what is the point if we don’t know what it’s for?” he said, adding that the creation of community advisory boards made up of local scientists could help channel the funding to important causes. The question of what the declaration should target also caused rifts in the panel. Schlegel said it should take into account specific African perspectives, challenges and risks. She warned that the document should not be modelled too closely on the Brussels declaration to ensure that it corresponded to the local context and priorities. However, Michel Kazatchkine, the UN’s co-chair for the Brussels Declaration, said the document should not run the risk of offering fragmented approaches to policymakers. This, he said, would increase opportunities for politicians to pick and choose which parts of it to adopt. “There are things like universal ethics and principles,” such as the safekeeping of research subjects, he told the event. “The Cape Town Declaration must stick true to those.”

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