The long shadow of UNESCO funding cuts

November 20, 2011
Aloizio Mercadante

Brazil's science minister urged support for UNESCO (Credit: Flickr/Agência de Notícias do Acre)

The sudden blow to UNESCO’s budget, following the US freeze on its funding for the organisation after it voted to admit Palestine at its general assembly last month (31 October), cast a shadow over the World Science Forum, which is co-organised by UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

The Brazilian science and technology minister, Aloizio Mercadante, welcomed Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in his plenary lecture yesterday (19 November) and invited the world’s governments to ‘re-invigorate their support for UNESCO’.

There is no organisation like it, he said, that puts so much effort into, and has so much capacity to promote, multilateral science collaborations. He called for involvement of all countries in truly multilateral science collaborations for the benefit of all, not just the interests of individual states being imposed on the international community, hinting presumably at the United States.

Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO’s assistant secretary-general for Natural Science, said in her plenary lecture that “Despite the fact that UNESCO is going through some challenging times I can personally guarantee that we will re-double our efforts in connections between science and society”.

William Colglazier, science and technology adviser to US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, told SciDev.Net: “Because of congressional legislation the executive branch almost had no choice, so I know the State Department was trying to head it off, because whatever we might feel about trying to help the Palestinians in terms of science – back when I was at the American Academy of Science we had a number of joint projects between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian scientists – but the worry was there would be, because of the existing law, no choice for the US government but to cut off funds and that was gonna’ have a lot of negative repercussions.”

“I think there was a great sadness at what that impact would be of the sort the symbolic decision that was made,” he said.

“I don’t know what the potential over time is to try and change it. But I certainly think the impacts on UNESCO are unfortunate.”

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


WHO polio eradication target may continue to be missed

June 27, 2011

The WHO target for the global eradication of polio may continue to be missed, with the media, the international community, planners and medics underestimating the complex dynamics of the disease.

Donors and countries are committing only 60 per cent of the money needed to fight the polio. Credit: Flickr/Gates Foundation

Thomas Abraham, director of the Public Health Media Project at the University of Hong Kong , told a session on ‘Underground Epidemics’ that the paralysing disease is continuing to evade deadlines set by the WHO to consign the disease to history, partly because of the failure to see polio as an epidemic requiring more serious and urgent action.

Abraham said that while the WHO is concentrating its efforts on vaccination in the endemic countries of Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, the disease is busy spreading to West and Central Africa from Nigeria, seriously eroding gains.  

And a serious funding problem has arisen, he said, with donors and countries committing only 60 per cent of the money needed to fight the problem. Currently a gap of US$665 million exists, jeapordising the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s final push to eradicate the disease by 2012.

“This gap in finances is a big source [of] worry,” Abraham told the session. “If the money is not found quickly, efforts to tackle polio will continue to be delayed, and fatigue may set in - with governments and donors going for other diseases that may become a priority tomorrow.”

Maina Waruru, freelance science journalist and SciDev.Net contributor


Who networks the networks?

October 5, 2010

Networks can be hard to visualise

As a journalist, I have a natural aversion to the abstract groupings that increasingly dominate international science. I cringe when I read about “virtual centres”. A centre has walls, to my mind.

I don’t struggle with networks so much. It makes sense that a network is simply people who talk to each other on a regular basis, and who collaborate in more or less formal ways. But this afternoon, things got more confusing.

Africa has networks coming out of its ears. They are managed by international donors (like RISE), continental organisation like the African Union, or some simply spring up naturally when scientists in a particular field want to work closely together.

Every now and then sponsors of the same type of network go ‘uh-oh’ and start to worry about doing the same thing. But this isn’t really a major issue, as long as there is some form of relationship between the networks. For example, one of the RISE networks has recruited students who received their previous training through another network.

There are other ways networks could collaborate. Travel is expensive in Africa, so networks could pool their resources for training in areas like proposal writing, intellectual property rights and research management. The other good thing about networks is that they are flexible, and can evolve to suit changing circumstances.

The resulting collaborations will be hard to visualise, however. A network of networks? You might need a maths degree…

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist


Tax-free science – a boon to Africa?

October 5, 2010

International companies could locate their research and development in Africa if the continent offered attractive incentives, a conference delegate said today.

If African countries were to start giving tax breaks to companies that might build laboratories on the continent, it could stem the brain drain, said Zeno Apostolides, a lecturer from the department of biotechnology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“Let all international companies come and invest in science development, exempt them from paying taxes with tailored conditions on science for certain period — with that alone you will have created jobs and retained much-wanted scientists,” he told me today.

Apostolides believes such deals could attract the best infrastructure and bring back scientists who have gone to work in other parts of the world.

South Africa introduced R&D tax breaks in 2008, but the uptake from industry has so far been disappointing.

Munyaradzi Makoni, freelance journalist


Catching up with Tanzania

October 5, 2010

I take every opportunity to catch up with Tanzanian science policymakers, and I had the opportunity to do so at lunchtime today, so pardon me while I veer a little off message.

In July this year, Tanzania unveiled a national budget that gave an unprecedented boost for science. The country’s Council for Science and Technology (COSTECH) had its budget increased thirty-fold to 30bn Tanzanian shilling (20m USD). More here on that.

This is, of course, good news for Tanzanian science. But the work has only started for COSTECH, which is moving from being pretty small fry to managing large science funding programmes. How they deal with this will provide valuable lessons for other African governments wanting to do the same.

At lunch I spoke to Evelyne Mbede, director of science and technology at the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology in Tanzania, about how COSTECH is coping. She informed me that the challenge is even bigger than I knew. The idea is that international donors, whose contribution to Tanzanian science outstrips even the new government funding levels, will also pool their funding in COSTECH so it can be coordinated by Tanzanians. As a result, COSTECH will spend a significant chunk of the first 4bn T.Sh. tranche it has received from government to expand its administrative capabilities.

COSTECH is also starting to prepare for the 2011 budget next month. The last budget propelled the country’s R&D budget from 0.028% of GDP to 0.1% of GDP. The goal of 1% is still far away, so next year’s budget should give us some idea of the depth of Tanzania’s commitment to S&T.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist


The problems of presidential patronage

September 24, 2010

Delegates networking at Acholi Inn, Gulu

Last night, I interviewed Maxwell Otim, UNCST’s deputy executive secretary, about his organisation’s role in helping science and technology advances to enter the marketplace in Uganda. The discussion revealed an interesting feature of Ugandan science support.

The country’s Millennium Science Initiative loan has resulted in a variety of user-friendly findings that will be incubated by the Ugandan Industrial Research Institute, he told me. But there is another source of support for clever science solutions in the country, namely presidential patronage.

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, is keen on science and technology. What is more, he likes the personal touch. So when the president visits science expos and sees something that he likes, more often than not he will offer those responsible funding from his own office.

This has become such a trend that there is now a presidential science fund that doles out support to these hand-picked projects. For instance, it has backed the development of a technology to prolong the shelf life of the banana that is prepared as ‘matooke’, a glutinous mash and local favourite served with meat stews. The technology allows matooke to be exported to homesick Ugandans worldwide.

The good thing about the presidential support is that it shows a personal commitment to science. The bad thing, clearly, is the lack of transparency in the selection mechanisms. Otim told me that he is urging the president’s office to put the money in the presidential fund up for open competition. Another one to watch.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist


Science and innovation: a masterclass

September 23, 2010

South African delegates, Mjwara is second from the right

There is a sizeable delegation of South Africans attending this meeting, led by Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of the Department of Science and Technology.

South Africa has a more developed innovation policy than most African countries, but even it has problems. The uptake on the R&D tax credits introduced in 2008 have been less than hoped, and the DST still struggles to elicit high-quality applications for its innovation support schemes. It is currently undertaking a wholesale re-organisation of its innovation support, placing it all under a newly created Technology Innovation Agency.

Yet, South Africa has a lot of lessons to teach a country like Uganda, and that is why it has been invited to come here – to share its experiences in supporting science and innovation.

Much of the discussion this afternoon has focused on shortcomings of the Ugandan science and innovation system: funding shortfalls, poor intellectual property protection and low take-up of science subjects at school and university level.

But when I spoke to Phil Mjwara over coffee this afternoon, he told me that he thought Ugandan scientists were selling themselves a little short. The challenges are not so different in South Africa, Mjwara said. But among other things, South Africa’s science officials are more skilled at publicising their successes to policymakers. This is something Ugandans must cultivate in order to nurthure their support, he said. “When we have achieved something, we shout about it.”

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist


Mega-programme whistle-stop tour

March 30, 2010

GCARD (credit: GCARD)

The CGIAR presented a draft version of its long-awaited mega-programmes, or thematic areas of work (TAWs) as they’re now being called, to GCARD this morning.

There are 8 TAWs and 3 ‘cross-cutting platforms’ that will be integral to all programmes—but the final numbers of both these may change.

TAW1: Agricultural systems for the poor and vulnerable

This will focus on ‘poverty hotspots’, looking at sustainable agriculture and food security, among other things. TAW1 is expected to improve the lives of more than 250 million poor people, with production increases of at least 10% over 10 years.

TAW2: Enabling agricultural incomes for the poor

The policies, institutions and markets required to boost rural incomes. TAW2 is expected to reduce the cost of taking goods to market by at least 20%.

TAW3: Sustainable crop increases for global food security

This will research options for increasing productivity of the three main cereal crops including identifying genes, accelerating the development of new varieties, improving crop management and supporting pro-poor policies.  CGIAR estimates it will affect three billion people.

Gender is one of the cross-cutting platforms (credit: USAID)

TAW4: Agriculture, nutrition and health

This is expected to reduce malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and foodborne disease.

TAW5: Water, soils and ecosystems

This is expected to improve access to water for productive purposes for 200 million people within 20 years; boost ecosystem resilience and reverse trends of water degradation.

TAW6: Forests and trees

This includes objectives such as harnessing forest ecosystem services for the poor. TAW6 should help reduce deforestation by 10% by 2030; reduce carbon emissions and increase the planting of tree genetic resources on 50,000 square kilometres of agricultural and degraded lands by 2030.

TAW7: Climate change and agriculture

This  is expected to produce science-based vulnerability assessments and lead to better national and global policies for accessing and using adaptation and mitigation technologies.

TAW8: Mobilising agricultural biodiversity for food security and resilience

Research will include creating a broader range of tools in molecular characterisation and boosting the use of genetic diversity, among others. TAW8 is expected to increase agricultural productivity, broaden the coverage of gene collections and safeguard biodiversity.

CGIAR is also proposing three ‘cross-cutting platforms’ in:

1. gender in agriculture

2. capacity strengthening to promote learning and knowledge sharing; and

3. Strategic planning and intelligence

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net


The donors’ take on mega-programmes

March 30, 2010

Donors speaking at GCARD have already expressed some concerns about CGIAR’s proposed mega-programmes (see Agricultural mega-programmes ‘will not attract funding’).

Kathy Sierra (credit: GCARD)

Yesterday afternoon, Kathy Sierra, chair of the CGIAR Fund Council and vice president of the sustainable development network at the World Bank, talked to SciDev.Net about donors’ expectations.

Are donors really against the CGIAR reform?

No. All the donors back the idea of creating ambitious, challenging and results-oriented programmes—what some people are calling the mega-programmes.

But let’s not make ‘the perfect’ the enemy of the good. There is some feeling within the CGIAR centres that we can’t move forward until all the mega-programmes are ready. They want to make sure they have a suite of programmes that are coherent and aligned.

We’d like that too – in the medium-term. But we really want to see action now.

Why not pick 2-3 programmes that are ready and present them to us so we can get moving?

Why the urgency?

The people that we’re serving would like now to see some investment and the donors would like to invest. But we can’t invest until we have some programmes there.

We want to see some early mega-programmes so they can show the way and so that we can start showing concrete results. We believe strongly that it will build confidence if we have a few programmes ready to go and approve to demonstrate to world that this is what change looks like.

We’ve been clear about the fact that we’re looking for fast-start action. The centes and consortium are fully capable of doing that.

What would you like the new mega-programmes to look like?

What we want are big, ambitious programmes that will change the lives of people. Exactly what that means, is up to the CGIAR consortium.

We will probably have a mixed portfolio made up of some vertical programmes around, for example, key crops such as rice or cereals, and another set of programmes that are cross-cutting, for example around a landscape such as drylands.

Some things are important: we want partnership. Irrespective of how you cut the pie, we want the process to be open—we want to know who the centres are collaborating with, how they’ve listened to partners, and where they’re handing over to local research actors.

And there are a few topic areas too, such as gender or climate change, that we think are critical for development and hope to see embedded in all the programmes.

At the end of the day, the mega-programmes have to be meaningful to the ultimate beneficiaries, have to open the system up and have to involve other partners. If they do they will gain the support not just of donors but other stakeholders in the system.

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net


Seeing is believing

March 29, 2010

(credit: Flickr/World Bank/Curt Carnemark)

There’s a mantra among fundraisers that ‘seeing is believing’—show people how their money will make a difference and they’ll be more likely to part with it.

Certainly many donors supporting science for development are increasingly asking the recipients of their grants for case studies to demonstrate their impact.

The world of agricultural research is no exception, as we heard at GCARD yesterday, when several donors called on CGIAR to ‘fast-track’ some of their proposed mega-programmes, partly to build case studies that illustrate their worth.

Today, Kathy Sierra, chair of the CGIAR fund council, told SciDev.Net “it will build confidence if we have a few programmes ready to go and approved to demonstrate to world that this is what change looks like”.

At a press briefing this morning, the head of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, Hartmann, illustrated just how powerful a success story can be.

His organisation has been working with Nigerian leaders to improve agriculture. “Within four years, we had boosted the country’s staple crop by 10 million tonnes—with no price drops and the added environmental benefit of taking 800,000 hectares out of production”, said Hartmann.

The project reached 80 million people, he added.

After that success, policies within Nigeria changed. “People who had never before thought about investing in agriculture starting coming to us and saying ‘what can we do?’ ” ‘You can invest in agribusiness,’ was Hartmann’s reply. And they have.

“In just four years mindsets were changed,” says Hartmann. There’s a lesson in here—not only for the CGIAR as they thrash out the details of their mega-programmes, but for all of us concerned with bringing more funding to bear on science for development.

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net


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