Optimism emerges over European funding for African research facilities in Africa

March 11, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Political momentum is growing in both Europe and Africa behind the idea that investment in research facilities is as important as investment in roads and schools for a country’s development.

But a lot of work needs to be done over the next few months, on both sides, to ensure that a willingness in principle to commit such funding is translated into the practical steps needed to get the money flowing.

This was the main conclusion to emerge from a two-day conference that took place as part of the meeting on EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration, which ended in Brussels on Friday.

The workshop was the concluding event of a two-year initiative, funded by the European Union, known as Promoting Africa-EU Research Partnership Infrastructure Project (PAERIP).

So far, the most concrete result of the PAERIP project – considered as essential background for any future investment – has been a 227-entry inventory of existing research facilities in Africa that is already available on the PAERIP website.

The overall conclusions of the project have yet to be formally completed. But their main thrust is captured in a statement issued at the end of the previous PAERIP meeting, held in Ghana last December.

In particular, those attending the Ghana meeting agreed that that research infrastructures should be a priority focus of bi-regional cooperation in science, technology and innovation between Africa and the European Union.

The more detailed conclusions of the PAERIP project are still being drawn up, and will take into account a number of points raised in discussion during the Brussels conference.

One was that it was essential for politicians to be able to demonstrate to their electorates the direct benefits to be drawn from investment in research infrastructure, which are usually much less visible than large scale construction projects, such as building a new road or airport.

“If you can show the benefits that are likely to emerge, you will oil the process of finding development funding,” said Francisco Affinito, a policy officer with the European Commission’s development directive.

He also he emphasised that demand for investment in research facilities needed to come from African countries themselves if it was to become part of mainstream development funding.

A second conclusion likely to be highlighted in the final PAERIP report is the need to ensure that spending on infrastructure is complemented by investment in “human capacity development” – in other words, in producing the researchers able to use it effectively.

Participants at the meeting said that it was unlikely that a new funding line would be opened up to cover European support for research infrastructure in Africa; there are already too many demands on the EU budget.

But there was general optimism among those leaving the conference that, providing the ways can be found of using existing funding instruments, the money will begin to flow before too long.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Looking up at the stars for inspiring African scientists to become world leaders

March 11, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

To see a major part of scientific collaboration going forward, all we need to do is look up at the stars.

At least this was the case made repeatedly, and often passionately made by leading members of the global scientific community during the five-day EU Science: Global Challenges and Global Collaboration conference in Brussels last week.

The study and exploitation of space, offers one of the most fertile ground for nurturing the seeds of scientific collaboration and development that we have, they say.

Although other areas of science, such as health and information and communication technologies (ICTs), were also held up as examples of current and potential collaborative research, it was what exists beyond our atmosphere that received the most attention.

“The most important thing we learnt from going to the moon was when we looked back at our own tiny planet,” says Mae Jemison, head of the 100 Year Star Ship Initiative, alluding to the ability of aspirational science to frame society’s biggest questions.

“Imagine what we will learn from the nearest star,” she adds.

While the inspiring and expansive nature of space is in itself a cohesive factor, the drive for collaboration comes from a much more pragmatic source. The huge quantity of money and expertise required for space exploration or the need for telescopes spread over large regions in astronomy, for example, demand cooperation — almost as a prerequisite — to achieve their goals.

And with this promise of collaboration comes huge potential for scientific and economic development, not least in the world’s developing nations. While perhaps the most obvious tool for development, numerous examples throughout the conference highlighted how space research can touch the world’s poor.

For example, the organisation of the African-European Radio Astronomy Platform is taking shape, as is the pan-African and Australian Square Kilometre Array project. The  improvements in infrastructure that these will bring, could result in high-speed internet and renewable energy, and human capacity building in remote regions.

What is more, says George Miley, vice president of the International Astronomy Union, the relative infancy of large, multinational, radio astronomy projects offers a unique opportunity for African researchers to get in on the ground floor.

By investing now in research and capacity building, African nations with links to radio astronomy projects could establish themselves as world leaders in the field, he adds.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Africa’s astronomy facilities ‘must not become white elephants’

March 11, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Astronomy facilities built in Southern Africa are likely to remain irrelevant to many countries in the region unless greater efforts are put into training the researchers needed to make good scientific use of them.

This was the warning given by Nithaya Chetty, group executive for astronomy at South Africa’s National Research Foundation, during a two-day workshop on research infrastructures in Africa held as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Namibia's HESS telescope: high-level science, but little local involvement

Namibia’s HESS telescope: high-level science, but little local involvement

In recent years, it had become widely accepted that Africa was an excellent place to do astronomy because of its climate and viewing conditions, said Chetty, who is also professor of physics at the University of Pretoria.Referring to the recent decision to build part of the new Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in South Africa – the other part will be in Australia – he also accepted that construction of such scientific infrastructure was likely to have important socio-economic spin-offs.

For example, much had been made in generating political support for SKA of its potential role in boosting the country’s IT industry and capacity for high-speed data transmission.

“But attention must also be given to human capacity development,” said Chetty. “We want to go beyond simply building, maintaining and operating telescopes and making observations  –  we also want and need to be involved in creating and using the science.”

Chetty pointed to the example of the HESS (High Energy Stereoscopic System) telescope in Namibia, built and operated by Germany’s Max Planck Society, which had been operating successfully for just over ten years.

“HESS is now ranked among the ten most productive telescopes in the world. But the impact on astronomy in Namibia has been rather low, and this has been disappointing,” he said.

“It is a forewarning of what we may or may not achieve for the development of astronomy on the African continent. If we cannot do it in Namibia, we have an even lower chance of achieving it in countries such as Mozambique or Madagascar.”

Chetty said that it had been a similar experience with the South African Large Telescope (SALT), which opened in 2005. Apart from South Africa, there had been virtually no involvement by researchers from other countries in Southern Africa; almost all had come from Europe and the United States.

“The original idea was that SALT was to encourage growth of astronomy in Southern Africa,” he said. “But we do not have a sufficient number of scientists from other parts of Africa using SALT.”

The lesson was that it was not sufficient to build the infrastructure for doing a science like astronomy. It was also important to create a nurturing environment for the science to thrive, including building the required human capacity.

“We need astronomy researchers, engineers and technicians, we need a concerted effort to attract young people into mathematics and science, and programmes to inspire a new generation of children,” he said.

“Otherwise we will just end up building white elephants.”

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

How NASA’s space travel mission could improve development on Earth

March 11, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Meetings on research infrastructure are usually sober affairs — even the word infrastructure is pretty off-putting.

So there was some excitement when Mae Jamieson, America’s first female black astronaut, chose to address a workshop on Europe-African collaboration on building such infrastructures.

Jamieson’s message, delivered appropriately on International Women’s Day, itself had an exotic dimension.

She was visiting Brussels as part of a European trip to promote the Starship 100 mission. This is a futuristic programme, financed partly by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and partly by the US military, to prepare the groundwork for a possible mission outside the solar system within the next 100 years.

The idea sounds remote from contemporary concerns. But Jamieson affairs — whose impressive CV includes both an engineering degree and more than two years working as a doctor with the Peace Corps in Liberia affairs — is keen to argue that Starship 100 has direct relevance to the modern world, including the problems facing developing countries.

“We are talking about building the capacities required for humans to travel to the stars, not about launching an actual mission,” Jamieson told the workshop, which was being held as part of the meeting EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration.

“And we are using this to help force the development of technologies that could prove useful to this mission affairs — but may also have applications to meeting the needs of today.”

She later explained to SciDev.Net that although Starship 100 is primarily about building the technological capacity to travel to the stars, “everything we will need is also related to what we need to survive on earth”.

For example, astronauts engaged in a multi-year mission would require new, non-polluting sources of energy. They would also need to “look at health in a different way”, since they would not have immediate access to advanced medical skills and complex medical facilities.

Asked how much interest she felt there would be in a manned voyage to the stars for those living in poverty in the developing world, she points to the mission’s logo, which has an image of the constellation Canopus.

“This is a constellation that appears over the Rift Valley [in East Africa], where it is familiar to people,” she explains. “Every group of people in the world has its astronomers; it is not an activity confined to the industrialised west.”

Exotic as it may sound, we are likely to hear more of Starship 100, which already has the support of former president Bill Clinton, even in the context of science and development.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Europe seeks to provide the mould for use of animals in research

March 8, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Can tough European standards on the use of animals in research, from mice to primates, become the basis of a global harmonisation of the rules protecting animals in such situations – including in developing countries?

This was the big question hanging over discussion of the global implementation of what are known as the ‘3Rs’ – the goals of replacement, refinement and reduction of the use of animals – during a session held as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Speakers described a wide differences in attitudes towards the use of animals across the world.

But they also pointed out that the more that researchers from developing countries who have trained in the West return to their countries, the more they can spread the message that good science and animal welfare can go hand in hand.

Richard Fosse, vice-president for laboratory animal science with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, pointed out that Asia has a patchwork of cultures and religions that deal with animals in different ways.

For example, India has a long tradition of protecting animals for reasons ranging from its colonial past to the status of animals in the Hindu religion. “The concept of animal welfare is intuitive,” he said.

China in contrast, which currently uses about 12 million animals a year for research purposes, has less of a tradition in doing so, and although the country has a rapidly developing regulatory framework around the use of animals – at least on paper – implementation was “very patchy”.

But the situation was improving, said Fosse, largely because of rapidly growing number of Chinese researchers who are returning from the West with a well-developed notion of what makes good science.

“The notion of animal welfare is now well established, particularly among young scientists, and the idea of an animal ‘suffering’ is no longer difficult to explain.”

Cambodia and Vietnam presented a different challenge, said Fosse. Both countries are currently the source of many of the primates used in Western research laboratories. And as this use is reduced, both countries were now looking at the potential of building up their own research organisations using primates.

Octavio Presgrave from Brazil’s National Institute of Quality Control in Health, described how Latin America has recently seen a dramatic rise in discussions about animal welfare, leading to tighter regulations in countries ranging from Argentina to Cuba.

There was a general agreement, however, that the most advanced animal welfare legislation is in Europe, where EU member states have a long tradition of incorporating the 3Rs into their laws and policies.

The most recent of these was a key directive agreed in 2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, which came into force at the beginning of this year.

Thomas Hartung, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, pointed out that Switzerland – which is not a member of the European Union and not therefore required to follow these standards – had nevertheless agreed to require its pharmaceutical industry to do so.

“Other countries could be persuaded to adopt this approach,” Hartung suggested. He argued that regulators could take a more pro-active role in ensuring that countries which export products to Europe followed good European practice in the use of animals, for example in testing pharmaceutical products.

The lesson that emerged from the session was that developing countries are likely to resent changes if they feel that they are being imposed from the outside, particularly if they conflict with deep-rooted cultural values.

But if scientists in these countries accept the logic of the European approach, combining the needs of high-quality science and animal welfare, they will realise that the two are not necessarily incompatible.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Africa’s inventivity on climate-change shows ‘staggering’ growth, but still scores low on clean energy patents

March 8, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

One of the many areas of contention in the climate change debate is whether the patent system helps or hinders the development of clean energy technologies by allowing the rights to these technologies to be privately owned.

Up to now, there has been little hard data with which to argue the case either way.

But this situation has just been improved – even if no simple conclusion to the broad discussion has yet emerged – by the publication of a report about patents on clean energy technologies in Africa prepared by the European Patent Office (EPO) with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“This is a very critical area from the patent point of view, because developing new technologies to meet the threat of climate change is a global challenge,” Gerald Owens of the EPO, one of the authors of the report, said at a session during the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

According Owens, analysis of more than 1.5 million patent documents concerning technologies related to climate change revealed that less than one per cent of applications for clean energy technologies during the period 1980 to 2009 had been filed in Africa.

In recent years the situation has been improving. For example, while the global inventive activity during this period – as measured by the patent system – had grown at five per cent a year, in Africa the growth rate was almost twice as high, and for mitigation technologies it has been what the report describes as a “staggering” 59 per cent.

Despite this growth, however, Africa’s share of global inventive activities in climate change and mitigation technologies is still only 0.24 per cent. And of this, says the report, 84 per cent is in South Africa.

Owens pointed out that Africa has vast untapped potential for clean technologies based on energy sources such as hydropower, solar, geothermal, wind and biomass. “For example, it has seven major river systems which could provide enough hydropower for the whole of Africa,” he said.

Harnessing this potential, however, required the development of the appropriate technology.

Mark Radka, head of the energy branch of UNEP, told SciDev.Net that intellectual property issues were “a persistent source of friction” in climate change negotiations because of fears that excessive control over clean technologies was being wielded by patent holders.

“There is a lack of analysis and data, and this is a real barrier to agreement in the technology area,” Radka said. “The lack of progress on intellectual property issues has contributed to the general sclerosis in the negotiations, and the inability of governments to come to an agreement”.

Radka said that this demonstrated the need for a better understanding of the role of patents in promoting clean technologies. The new EPO/UNEP report is intended to contribute to that end.

The full report is available at here.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

COMSTECH makes plea for EU science aid

March 8, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

Muslim countries need urgent help from the EU and its scientific community if they are to meet some of their most pressing challenges.

This was the direct plea made to the concluding session of the EU Science conference by Javid Laghari, Coordinator General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH).

Despite the 57 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) possessing 70 per cent of the world’s energy resources and a fifth of its natural resources, 40 per cent of the population still lives below the poverty line, he says.

This situation will only be possible to improve if these countries can solve their problems of food security, health, energy and climate change, he adds.

But they lack the research and technological capacity to do it alone, and thus the political and scientific support of the EU is vital, he says.

“I am here to reach out to the European community to ask for help to build out capacity in science and technology for social and economic development.”

“We need cooperation and collaboration to boost our capacity in crucial areas.”

Speaking to SciDev.Net on the sidelines, Laghari said that the real problem was not the scientific community, as lots of individual partnerships already exist.

It was the EU which needed to begin showing political leadership, if research collaboration was to have the necessary impact in OIC countries, he added.

Political willpower was the only hurdle standing in the way of fruitful collaboration, he believed.

He was hopeful that the new Horizon 2020 funding framework could help to galvanise the EU support for capacity building in OIC countries, and urged the whole scientific and political community to get behind it.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

How green energy can boost radioastronomy — and vice versa

March 7, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

At first sight, radioastronomy and renewable energy might seem strange bedfellows.

But there’s a growing realisation – or perhaps one should say a growing argument – that large radioastronomy facilities can become a driver for the use of renewable energy by remote communities across the developing world.

The logic was explained by Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, of the Astrophysics Institute of Andalucía in Spain, speaking at a session on joint collaboration between Europe and Africa in radioastronomy as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Verdes-Montenegro outlined several reasons why renewable energy technologies will be critical for major radioastronomy facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which has been approved for construction in Africa and Australia.

“One factor is the need to provide large amounts of power to a concentration of instrumentation located far from any energy grid,” she said.

As a result, the SKA project is already looking at how it can exploit a range of renewable energies – such as solar energy and biomass – to produce electricity in situ.

It is also looking at developing new storage techniques, given that the telescopes will be operating 24 hours a day, and stored power will be required at night when solar energy is not available.

A second link to renewable energy, Verdes-Montenegro tells SciDev.Net, is that radioastronomy facilities require locations free from the radio interference that can be created by high capacity power lines.

“We have the chance to see SKA become the prototype of large mega-science infrastructures with zero per cent carbon footprints,” says Verdes-Montenegro. “It is a unique opportunity to explore the universe using green energy.”

But she is quick to point out that the astronomers will not be the only ones who would benefit.  “There will also be an opportunity for remote local populations to get direct benefits through access to energy supplies,” she says.

“Eventually 1.6 billion people around the world – the number who are currently not on the electricity grid – could benefit from the development of radioastronomy facilities,” says Verdes-Montenegro.

European energy researchers may also benefit. She says that Spain – which has recently been at the forefront of developing renewable energy sources – is leading a consortium that plans to bid for the contract to provide power for the South African facility.

Both arguments will come in handy for those who say SKA will provide wide socio-economic benefits – a case that needs to be made convincingly if full funding for the project is going to be raised, which remains far from certain.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Why international collaboration has become essential to capacity building

March 7, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Scientists have long collaborated with their peers across national boundaries. In the past, however, the reason has been largely scientific: collaboration between the best scientific minds – wherever they live – has been seen as producing the best science.

More recently a different theme has emerged, with particular importance for developing countries. This is the idea that international collaboration is essential for building global scientific capacity; and that the stronger this capacity, the better placed the world will be to solve the problems it faces.

The importance of this new theme was highlighted in a brief but charged address by Thomas Auf der Heyde, deputy director-general at South Africa’s Department for Science and Technology, to the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Auf der Heyde pointed out that in recent years, the European Union – as well as its member states — have played an increasingly important role in supporting science capacity building in the developing world.

“It is essential that the focus of this collaboration should continue under Horizon 2020,” he said – a reference to the new multi-year programme of support for science and technology which has just been approved by the Council of Ministers.

“Why should European researchers collaborate with researchers outside Europe, including developing countries?” he asked. The simplest reason was that it was morally right to do so.

But there were three other reasons.

The first was that international collaborative efforts were “both rational and purposeful”.

“There is no point in Europe opening up its research systems and support programmes to the world, and trying to link together the full human potential for using research to solve global problems, if it does not help to boost scientific capacity in countries which do not have it yet,” Auf der Heyde said.

“It would be like claiming to develop a sport in a country, but only focussing on a small part of the population, rather than the whole population. That would be absurd.”

The second reason was that tackling global challenges required global cooperation. “If we are going to accept that different parts of the globe will contribute in different but equally important ways to solving global problems, the capacity to contribute to those solutions also needs to be distributed globally.”

The third reason for intervening in capacity development, Auf der Heyde said, was self-interest, based on the fact that that research and development capacity was closely linked to economic development.

If the future of the world’s economy depended on the development of economic activity in parts of the world that were currently “economically dark”, it made sense to help build the science and technology capacity of such countries, to enable them to escape their situation.

All arguments that will come in useful in ensuring that the interests of developing countries are well represented in battles over how the Horizon 2020 pie is divided up.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Horizon 2020 ‘should include funding for outreach activities’

March 6, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

Science has the ability to generate revolutionary inventions and innovative ideas that can have a tangible impact on people’s quality of life.

But it can also awe and inspire. And it is this side to scientific discovery that is often undervalued and underutilised by funders and policymakers, according to experts here at the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Speaking at a side event concerning the global development impact of astronomy, Kevin Govender, director of the International Astronomy Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), says that to encourage the next level of innovators to pursue scientific careers, support must be given to science that engages people.

“It’s great to create a new device or product, but people need to be inspired to get the training in the first place if science capacity is to develop,” he tells SciDev.Net at the sidelines of the conference.

“Of course we need to invest in new technology and basic research, but at the same time, if we leave out the inspirational aspect [of science] we are going to have a gap in the innovation landscape that will be very hard to fill.”

This knock-on effect of inspiration can be seen within the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) astronomy project — a network of radio telescopes to be spread across sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, says Govender.

Since it was announced that Kenya would host part of this network, students taking some physics courses at the University of Nairobi doubled “almost overnight”.

But traditionally, he says, EU funding has prioritised basic research over community engagement and education projects.

In order to maximise and sustain the scientific capacity building, the Horizon 2020 funding framework needs to pay attention to these important projects, he adds.

He would like to see language in the final agreement that highlights the importance of education and the public understanding of science for capacity building and research, with commitments to engage in outreach activities eventually built into funding requirements.

Anita Loots, Associate Director for Science and Engineering for the SKA in Africa, agrees that modest investment beyond the physical needs of projects can be significant.

“I think current investment into scientific infrastructure is very good, but for a little bit extra money spent on outreach, you can do a huge amount to uplift communities through science, especially in Africa,” she says.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

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