What’s next for RISE?

October 8, 2010

The RISE conference ended at midday today and by now everybody is on their way home. After all the discussions and presentations that have taken place over the past week, one question remains: What is next for the RISE programme?

The answer is, hopefully, more of the same. The RISE networks are nearing the end of their first 2.5 years of funding. It is very likely that its funders will approve another 3-year term to see current students through their degrees and to recruit new students when others graduate. This will be ‘Phase 2’ of the programme, and won’t involve a great expansion of the number of students being trained.

What comes after may be different. Phase 3 is currently envisaged as a move towards a more long-term sustainable funding model, based on partnerships with other sources of support. This will not least include African governments, whose commitment will be vital to taking the programme forward.

But for now it is bye-bye Benoni, and goodbye from us bloggers.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist


Seaweeds of Zanzibar, herbal STI treats of Samburu, Malawi’s drought proof tea

October 8, 2010

Irene Kamanja

RISE has given students an opportunity to present their work and the work is impressive.

And, indeed, the bag of research from students is mixed. One project that came up yesterday was the distribution and nutritional composition of selected sea weeds that are used as marine fishing baits in basket traps in Zanzibar.

Grace Mutia of the Western Indian Ocean Regional Initiative wants to know the nutritional properties of seaweed and why parrot fish, a common local food source, choose them. The aim is to isolate and produce a fish-attracting chemical that will reduce seaweed demand and improve the lives of local fishermen.

Irene Kamanja from the University of Nairobi, under the African Natural Products Network, wants to establish an inventory of plants and formulations used to manage sexually transmitted diseases in Kenya’s Samburu community, 324 kilometres north of Nairobi. One hopes results will come out on the efficacy and toxicity of the priority plants used by local people to treat STI’s.

Malawians can now benefit from draught tolerant tea. Pelly Malebe of the Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products network, at University of Pretoria told me they have managed to identify drought tolerant genes for tea grown in Malawi. Hopefully improved quality life is assured for small farmers that will replace old tea cultivars with drought.

And Secilia Ilonga of the University of Namibia hopes her research into indigenous plants compounds that can treat cancer could help bring about safe and effective treatment in future.

This is just about the briefest pick of the vast research on offer by RISE students. They deserve best wishes.

Munyaradzi Makoni is a freelance journalist

Reform science academies to benefit young scientists

October 8, 2010

John Kabasa

The nature of science academies in Africa as exclusive clubs for old scientists came under fire at the RISE conference.

John Kabasa, director of the African Natural Products Network, one of RISE’s networks, who is based at Makerere University in Uganda, wants science academies in Africa to be reformed to include young, brilliant scientists.  This, he believes, will rid the academies of their image as an old scientists’ club.

He added that, right now, there was a need to use the social network of old scientists to mobilise critical resources and support struggling, upcoming scientists.

Kabasa said, in light of the brain drain that has severely affected Africa, the few scientists that have remained in the academies must act as a magnet to young scientists and make them stay on the continent.

“We cry about an ageing population of scientists, yet we are reluctant to offer smooth transition of young brilliant scientists. If the academies cannot change, young scientists have to reorganise themselves as a recognisable national body and promote the interests of science,” said Kabasa.

Earlier, Orlando Quilambo, the president of the Academy of Sciences of Mozambique and the academic vice rector at Eduardo Mondlane University, had told me that their academy had tried to be inclusive by attracting young meritable scientists, boosting the membership of  their two year old academy to 100.

They have also created a ‘council of elders’, old experienced scientists within the academy who can guide and inspire young scientists.

Pakistan’s early-career scientists (aged 40 years and under) launched a national academy in February this year to share research findings, and address concerns such as a lack of career opportunities and brain drain.

“Let’s see what is good from their ideas and improve on it,” said Kabasa.

Munyaradzi Makoni is a freelance journalist

What went wrong at ICSU?

October 6, 2010

Dr Rocky Skeef

It’s been a while since we heard from the International Council of Science’s Regional Office for Africa (ICSU-ROA), but at the RISE conference I managed to catch up with its new acting director, Rocky Skeef.

The fate of ICSU-ROA has been unclear – at least to us journalists – since October last year, when news spread that an internal evaluation document had highlighted some problems at the organisation. Shortly after this the then director, Sospeter Muhongo, departed from his post and a new director is only expected to step in early next year.

The content of the internal report was for members’ eyes only, but after my chat with Dr Skeef this week I can shine some light on what went wrong.

First, there were money problems. ICSU is funded by hefty membership fees that few African countries feel that they can afford. So ICSU-ROA gets money from two main sources – the hosting country South Africa and ICSU’s main secretariat in Paris. This has raised questions over the ownership of ICSU-ROA’s agenda and whether it really represents the interests of the entire continent.

There had also been problems with raising funds to support the various projects that ICSU-ROA had drawn up plans for. (Projects that can be read about here)

But there also were serious problems between the Paris and Africa offices. “Personality clashes,” Skeef told me. Still, there is no doubt that ICSU-ROA will keep going, he said. The internal report found more “achievements” than “failures, tensions and problems”.

But a looming issue is what will happen when South Africa’s 10-year hosting deal for ICSU-ROA runs out. “Regionality” demands that the location of the African secretariat is rotated between members. ICSU-ROA is almost halfway through this first decade. Will another country axle South Africa’s mantle in five years’ time?

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

Are universities and networks good bedfellows?

October 6, 2010

Networks like RISE don’t always slot effortlessly in with the administrative structures of the institutions that participate in them. The graveyard shift before lunch today focused on the relationship between networks and universities. A large variety of African universities were represented, and all agreed that they valued and welcomed network opportunities like RISE.

That is not to say that the creation of networks is problem-free. For example, university rules that dictate who can and cannot supervise a PhD student can get in the way of initiatives where students receive supervision from many different directions.

If institutions have to approve revised, matching curricula, that can take years. As I write this, three universities – one in Kenya, one in Tanzania and one in Uganda – are harmonising their degrees so that students can transfer credits between them as part of the AFFNET natural products network. Different fee structures offer up another potential quagmire for implementing networks.

Such administrative headaches do thwart effective network-building. But the painful process of clearing these road blocks have unforseen positive consequences for universities. More than once during this conference I’ve heard participants say that networking does not only bring you into closer contact with the partners in the network, but also improves internal networking and networking with other institutions in their country.

In other words, the benefits of inter-institutional networks seem are infectious and can spread much further than the original members. Perhaps a silver lining to consider when the gods of networking seem particularly inclement?

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

Finally, some students!

October 6, 2010

Fialho Nehama, water scientist

This morning, we finally got to hear a little about the core business of RISE – the research being carried out by the 90-odd students sponsored by the programme.

First up was Raphael Tshimang from the SSAWRN network, who is modelling the flow of water through the Congo basin. The hydrological systems of the Congo are poorly understood, yet it is crucial to understanding the climate and weather patterns of the entire African continent.

The lack of data means that more detailed surveying of the basin is required before scientists like Tshimanga can make reliable predictions about the environmental and climatic effects of activities like logging and mining in the basin.

We also heard from Fialho Nehama (pictured) from the WIO-RISE network who is modelling the freshwater dispersal where the mighty Zambezi river meets the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. This is important, he told me, to understand how dam activity upstream affect fisheries offshore, as the estuary acts as a nursery for many fish species. No such studies have been carried out previously. “This research would not have been possible if it wasn’t for RISE,” he told me.

Both Tshimanga and Nehama are doing research that is still some way off from being packaged and presented to African ministries as advice for how to manage their water resources. This highlights the need for mechanisms that can continue to support these students beyond their PhDs so they can straighten out some of the question marks that we heard about today.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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 RISE networks 101

October 5, 2010

Yesterday, the leaders of the RISE networks met here in Benoni to discuss their experiences and the challenges ahead. Today, the discussions continue. There’s a lot I want to write about here, not least the exciting research pursued by RISE students, but to set the scene, I think I first need to outline the current status of the networks.

RISE funds five networks—the African Materials Science and Engineering Network (AMSEN); the African Natural Products Network (RISE-AFNET); the Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products Network (SABINA); the Sub-Saharan Africa Water Resources Network (SSAWRN); and the Western Indian Ocean Regional Initiative (WIO-RISE).

Each network involves universities in a number of African countries. All are multi-disciplinary in nature and try to involve not only academics, but civil society and industry to create a “new type of graduate” that can bring their findings to bear on local challenges.

The networks are approaching the end of their 2.5-year first phase, funded by US$800,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York with matching support (in terms of supervision, etc) from participating universities. Thus far, their main output is the soon-to graduate MSc and PhD students (each network sponsors between one and two dozen students). The materials science and engineering network has already lodged a provisional patent and had its first scientific article published in a US journal.

In other words, it’s still early days for the networks and this meeting discusses a work in progress.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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