Beyond Forum 2012: some final reflections

April 29, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson


There’s been much talk in Cape Town at Forum 2012 over the past week of the need for a paradigm change in thinking about health research for development.

Certainly the concept is a useful one to describe the switch from an approach focussed primarily on the allocation of research resources, to one that addresses the need to build systems of innovation in the health field (as elsewhere).

It helps us move beyond a fixation with the famous 90/10 imbalance between research expenditure on developed and developing world health priorities, to embrace a wider perspective.

But at the end of three days of lively discussions, I remained unclear whether talking about “Beyond aid” – the theme of the meeting – represented a radical idea, or a useful way of labelling a set of trends that have been in motion for some time, and identifying the general direction in which they point.

Either way, however, such a discussion is timely.

First, as Carl Ijsselmuiden, executive director of the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED), the main organiser of the conference, pointed out in his opening remarks, it captures the growing feeling that “foreign aid as hand-outs to the poor” is no longer workable.

The approach may not be one that wins many votes for aid-providing governments. But in the long-term, these realise that “foreign aid as capacity building” is much more likely to produce lasting results.

 Second, talking about what happens next – particularly in an area such as health research and innovation, and at a time when external sources of funding are drying up – provides a spur to developing country governments to address their own responsibilities.

Ending on an up-note: the singer Princess Chaka Chaka, UN Goodwill Ambassador and a champion of Africa's fight against malaria, leads participants of Forum 2012 in a farewell chorus (Gabi Falanga)

This has both funding and policy implications. Health research spending needs to become a higher priority for these governments. And they need to create the incentives that will allow the result of this research to be translated into medical products – such as drugs – and services.

Finally, there is the pragmatic issue that, as aid budgets start falling in many developed countries as a result of their financial difficulties, anything that promises to “do more with less” with what funding remains available becomes increasingly attractive.

Moving from “aid as hand-out” to “aid as capacity building” does just that.

So, three good reasons for embracing the concept of a paradigm change. But it also became clear in the Forum 2012 discussions that there are reasons for not expecting too much, too soon.

There may be consensus on what needs to change. But this consensus does not necessarily extend to agreement on what this change should be.

For example, those seeking a new international convention on health research and development argue that it is needed to make up for the failure of the market system to provide developing countries with access to medicines at affordable prices.

Pharmaceutical companies may agree that this is a challenge. And that they need to work with governments – and aid agencies – to tackle it. But their interests ultimately lie in benefitting from the market, not in seeing alternatives put in place.

Similarly health ministers may be persuaded of the arguments for developing home-grown health industries, better equipped to meet local health needs.

But the people who really need convincing work in finance ministries. And the financial case for operating in a new way, rather than, for example, just importing technologies from abroad, is not always self-evident.

Paradigms get embedded in social – and political – systems. Changing them is not just a question of rational debate (even in science). It also requires challenging the interests that the old paradigm served.  And it can have costs attached.

So, big challenges ahead. The major contribution of Forum 2012 was to help cement the idea that “aid for capacity building” is the new mantra that needs to frame aid and government policies, in developed and developing countries alike.

Also that, as in fields such as agriculture and energy, health needs to move away from the idea that developments are research-driven, to recognising that research is one component of a holistic system of innovation – each part of which needs to be addressed.

The immediate task, as always, is to work out what all this means in practice, identifying needs and opportunities, and assessing the potential contributions of all interested parties (including the media).

Not quite the “Beyond aid” vision that the organisers are aiming for. But a step in that direction.

David Dickson is editor of SciDev.Net

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012.


Science centres and museums at PCST 2012

April 20, 2012

Luisa Massarani

Luisa Massarani
Latin America regional coordinator, SciDev.Net


Marzia Mazzonetto, Ecsite Project Coordinator and my good friend after years of working together in science communication, heard that I was writing a blog on PCST 2012 and got “jealous” — in the good sense, of course. She has attended several sessions on science centres and museums during the conference and has written a post for us. Cool, isn’t it? Here it is:

Science centres and museums all over the world are one of the places where public communication of science and technology is put into practice. They were also the focus of some of the several presentations that have been given during the two intense days of the PCST conference.

Different issues have been raised by the experts from the field, showing that science centres and museums face similar challenges and innovation needs as the rest of the wide science communication community.

One of the questions that was asked and discussed during these sessions was how science centres are and should be forums for communicating controversial scientific issues.

Underwear in a 2010 exhibition at the State History Museum in Moscow, Russia

Catherine Franche, director of Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums, mentioned a controversial list recently published in the US about objects that should never be shown in museums, which even included such items as underwear or images of naked human bodies.

How can be science explained in museums without being able to show some of the basic elements of biology and the world around us?

Sharon Ament, director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum in London, United Kingdom, presented some interesting examples of how her museum managed recently to use objects from its own collections to present an exhibition and associated activities on controversial topics such as slavery, evolution and sex.

Homo Habilis skull from a 2009 exhibition at London's Natural History Museum

The environment was a key theme of several presentations.  It’s not just journalists who face the pressure of reporting on environmental issues; museum experts and researchers also fear a lack of real connection between what is being shown and told and the critical issues with which to engage the public.

A interesting presentation on the topic was given by Joëlle Le Marec, from the Université Paris Diderot in France, during a highly multicultural session entitled “On the meaning of participation and democracy in different cultural and social contexts”.

Joëlle talked about how the theme of the environment “entered” science museums in France. She said that while in the 1970s and 80s environmental issues were presented as elements of reflection between inhabitants and their own territories, nowadays the environment is presented as a scientific object, more closely related to progress and international development and events rather than something connected to local issues.

Butterfly from Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

Is this new narrative of environment in science centres contributing to making people feel like environmental issues are something very far away from them?

Several other sessions at PCST 2012 have offered interesting experiences and studies coming from activities in science museums on topics such as evolution, genetically modified organisms and climate change. One more session worth mentioning was “Science and governance in a knowledge society: Research and best practices on the role of science centres and museums”.

Organising activities and exhibitions in a museum means a lot of work but it’s also fun, interesting and sometimes very difficult and challenging. Paola Rodari, project manager at Sissa Medialab in Trieste, Italy — and an expert in museum studies — said something that museums should never stop doing is evaluation; reflecting and possibly researching the effectiveness of the exhibitions and activities that they offer.

Museums are places where people can get together to discuss, dialogue and share opinions on science issues, but also contribute directly to the museum’s growth by sharing their hopes and expectations. They are also places where, in some instances, visitors can interact directly with scientists who have labs and run research directly inside the museum complex (as is the case with the Nature Live Labs at the Natural History Museum in London).

A young visitor to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the United States

How to evaluate and learn more about how these activities and issues are pushing science centres and museums to evolve, and how they are directly influencing science research and science policy is food for thought for future PCST conferences for sure!

This blog post is part of our Public Communication of Science & Technology (PCST2012) conference coverage.


Final day of Forum urges ‘creative wealth’ and e-learning strategies

April 3, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


African countries are being asked to use science, technology and innovation to create different, more inclusive forms of wealth that benefit entire societies and are more sustainable.

Under-development on the continent can be addressed by reduced reliance on inherited forms of wealth such as oil and minerals, and by shifting to “created” wealth through the application of science, technology and innovation, the Africa ST&I forum heard on its final day today.

“Science and innovation will create not only sustainable but equitable wealth for all in Africa,” said Donald Kaberuka, head of the African Development Bank (ADB) at the ministerial session of the forum.

“Created wealth has the potential to accelerate development and reduce inequality, as opposed to inherited wealth which fuels inequalities and at times sparks conflict in Africa,” he added.

Kaberuka said the bank has identified and is funding ST&I initiatives aimed at spurring economic development on the continent, alongside its investments in other sectors such as water, energy and infrastructure development.

He advised universities in Africa to place greater emphasis on e-learning education approaches, to help bridge the gaps resulting from a continent-wide shortage of qualified lecturers and the high number of university students.

“It would make a lot a sense to use e-learning in universities instead of having one lecturer teaching 1,000 students, resulting in poorly qualified graduates,” Kaberuka said.

By 2030, Africa stands to benefit from “demographic dividends”, as it is estimated a quarter of the world’s youth population will be Africans – but the opportunity to take advantage of this workforce will be lost if they don’t receive the education and skills training necessary to innovate and become entrepreneurs.

The ADB boss noted that some Asian counties have effectively utilised their large youth populations, with deliberate strategies to provide skills training and jobs, and said African countries need to perform the same task.

UNESCO director Irina Bokova told the meeting that UNESCO is helping African countries draft and reform their STI policies to align them with demands of current times, with a particular focus on grants and rewards for innovations for young scientists and women.


Declarations, dancing… but will the Forum deliver action?

April 3, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net


In an evening of a cosy buffet and free flowing drinks, many at the Forum’s conference dinner discussed Africa’s love of conferences and the lack of implementation of their outcomes.

Kenya’s Minister for Higher Education Science and Technology, Margaret Kamar, who was the host, could have not been more apt in terming the continent “a sleeping giant with tons of declarations with nothing being done to fulfil them.”

And she said she hoped that at the end of the Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation that scenario would change.

“I hope tomorrow will mark the end of declarations for Africa and we must translate these outcomes into development,” she said.

She had some food for thought for the delegates, that unlocking the continent’s potential won’t come from meetings and resolutions but on the ability of her people to wake up the giant and give it the much needed push to development.

“It’s time for science, technology and innovation in Africa and there is no short cut. We must do it. We want solutions that will work. Practical solutions for practical problems,” Kamar said.

The dinner was also a chance for delegates to relax after a long day’s deliberations, with African beats belching out from big speakers.  There was talents galore in footwork, and some very intricate and rare dance steps.  It was a reminder that everyone there, irrespective of their stations in public life — academics, diplomats, and even journalists like me — have many other gifts… including dancing.

Nonetheless, Kamar’s remarks echoed what has been said in many other places, at other meetings in other posh hotels, where excellent declarations have been made that rarely translate into tangible solutions for Africa’s people, the majority of whom are trapped in abject poverty.

Africa can only come unstuck with a paradigm shift, not business as usual.

We are now waiting to see how — and whether — this Nairobi meeting that had at its theme the promotion of Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive growth will contribute to bringing about real change.


Forum hears calls for more Africa-centred research

April 2, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


More laboratories for companies offering science and technology solutions and products targeting African challenges need to be located in Africa, in order to make these services more affordable to African consumers, the African Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation has heard.

At a plenary session today, rapporteurs read out out recommendations made at each session from the first two days of the forum — which have included a series of parallel meetings today on topics ranging from water and sanitation, to E-health  and food security. The recommendations will be discussed at the ministerial meeting on the final day of the forum tomorrow.

Delegates at the plenary heard that as well as improving affordability, the presence of such laboratories would improve the ability of researchers and students to access relevant knowledge.

Rapporteurs said delegates had commented that the concentration of high-tech facilities in the western world and parts of Asia were failing to benefit African innovators, especially in the area of knowledge-sharing — with distance cited a significant factor.

“High-tech labs are out of reach of many African innovators and scientists” was one conclusion read out by Thierry Ammoussougbo, rapportuer and  staffer with the UN Commission for Africa (UNECA). “Many firms selling products here do not make their products in Africa,” he continued.

Calls for more ST&I labs in Africa

The forum has heard calls for better training and working conditions to encourage African scientists to stay on the continent.

The first two days of the Forum have also been characterised by general calls for an African Science Academy to be established to boost ST&I on the continent and nurture young talent.

While funding for such an initiative could potentiall be sourced from international donors, many delegates have said that African states need to fund ST&I work in their respective countries in order to retain control over the funding and direction of various disciplines.

“They must be able to raise their own funds which they can control away from relying purely on donor funding,” was a conclusion read to the plenary by Ammoussougbo.

It was further felt that a realistic plan of action that would involve the continent’s science and technology government ministers needed to be developed by each country’s delegation, in order to help move the ST&I agenda “from talk to action”.

Further, the mainstreaming of science, technology and mathematics teaching in all institutions of learning — from primary school to university — and the encouragement of experts from the African diaspora abroad to collaborate and share knowledge with the continent was recommended.

Another recommendation was for the improved training of lecturers, and the implementation of deliberate measures to improve their working conditions was necessary in order to retain African experts at home.

Finally, the plenary heard calls for the establishment of regional and national ST&I forums, and improved communication of ideas with the wider public, to encourage all Africans to better appreciate the role of science, technology and innovation in national development .


Pan-African University controversy continues

April 2, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


I picked up interesting undertones from the first day of the meeting.

It seems the disagreements surrounding the selection of the Pan-African University (PAU) node for the Southern Africa region are far from being over; at least that was the impression I had as Beatrice Njenga of African Union gave  a rundown of the project  to the conference today.

South Africa’s Stellenbosch University had been chosen to host the space sciences centre but there were concerns by other regional countries who claimed they were not consulted — and also that they would have preferred to host a centre on water issues.

Njenga was upbeat that the project was doing well. PAU’s most recent fourth of five centres being set up around the continent by the African Union (AU) was announced on 18 March in Algeria.

Alfred Watkins, executive chairman of Global Innovation Summit had some interesting sentiments on the broader issue of investing in science in Africa.

He lamented widespread inertia when it came to the need for “practical solutions for practical problems,” and added that “vision with no implementation was mere hallucination”.

The same sentiment had been expressed earlier in the morning by Kenya’s Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, Margret Kamar.

“Africa is full of declarations we must now move to action,” she said.

According to a UNESCO report, Sub-Saharan Africa has seen growth in recent years in science and technology, particularly in the areas of internet access due to the explosion in mobile phone use, and I’ll have more to say on that in another blog post.

However, R& D output has remained low across the continent.


Greater ST&I investment needed to fight youth unemployment and poverty

April 2, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The African Conference on Science, Technology and Innovations for Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth opened in Nairobi on Sunday with calls for tangible action to use science and technology to fight youth unemployment and poverty.

Speakers at the first day of the conference said the time had come for the continent to use knowledge already in its possession to tackle these double  malaises  which continue to afflict the continent even as scientific and technical advances continue to be made around the world.

“It is now quite clear that the ability of African countries to achieve rapid and inclusive development and [the] ability to compete in the global market lies in their  ability to use science and technology and to creatively innovate, ” said Margaret Kamar, Kenya’s Minister for Education, Science and Technology.

“It is only through this that Africa governments will be able to address some of the most pressing challenges of  human capital  development and youth unemployment,” said the minister at the opening of the conference.

The forum — the very first of its kind in Africa — is sponsored by the United Nations  Education  and Science Council (UNESCO) and the African Development Bank (AFDB).

It aims to generate concrete steps and points of action including a “Nairobi Declaration” on a way forward that addresses the conference’s main themes and the measures that need to be taken to actualise the dream of African economies driven by ST&I.

Delegates include government ministers, bureaucrats and civil society activists and representatives from the private sector.

Lamine Ndiaye, President  of the African Academy of Sciences urged the continent’s governments to increase funding for ST&I, saying the traditional apathy of funding for ST&I would not work for Africa.


Major science, technology and innovation meeting for Africa

March 31, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Editor, SciDev.Net


Not whether, but how: that’s the question now facing both African governments, and the international finance organisations that back many of their activities, about investing in science and technology.

The change in attitude on both sides over the past decade has been dramatic. Ten years ago, few African governments took the need to build capacity in science and technology seriously.

Today it is widely accepted as essential for priorities that range from increasing food production to providing jobs for young people.

How far things have progressed, and how much further there is to go, will be on the table at a three-day meeting in Nairobi next week, the First Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovations for Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth, which will be attended on its final day by more than 30 ministers from across the continent.

In the past, these would have been primarily science and technology ministers.

This time, according to Lidia Brito, head of science policy at UNESCO — one of the main sponsors of the meeting — the goal has been to bring together ministers from different departments, including higher education, finance and planning,  to discuss how to make science “one of the building blocks of national development agendas”.

Before that, she explains, there will be two days of meetings with experts from outside Africa. “They will ask questions such as: Where is the innovation? Where is the new knowledge? Where is the capacity?”

In each case, there will be a specific focus on youth employment, inclusive growth and human development.

“Is Africa getting moving, where should it being moving, what are the barriers?” are the questions that the experts will be addressing, says Brito.

The first part of the conference will put the answers to these questions together, she says. They will then be presented to the ministers.

“We hope to achieve a commitment to the idea that we need to integrate policies,” she explains.

“Science ministers need to work more closely with finance ministers, and we want to reaffirm some of the commitments of heads of state to invest more strongly in science, technology and innovation.”

More than 250 delegates are expected to attend the forum, which in addition to UNESCO has been sponsored by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the African Union (AU), and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) , and will end with a declaration on what the continent needs to do to integrate science more fully into its development agenda.

There have been many such declarations in the past. Most have fallen by the wayside, often because of the absence of finance ministers who are able to commit the funds that allow things to happen (a criticism of, for example, the AU science summit of 2007).

This time, with the finance ministers attending and fully engaged in the process, the anticipated Nairobi Declaration will hopefully have a longer shelf life.


Declaration calls for better international collaboration and capacity building

November 22, 2011

"These are difficult times"

The World Science Forum culminated with the endorsement of a declaration calling for improved international collaboration in science and the breaking down of knowledge divides.

The declaration says that changes in science over the last decade signify “a new milestone in the history of science” and “a new era of global science”.

It makes five key recommendations including improved dialogue with society; promotion of international collaboration in science; and more collaborative policies to overcome the knowledge divide.

It calls for a universal ethical code of conduct on the freedoms and responsibilities of researchers that wants to see adopted by national legislations. It also calls for the strengthening of capacity building, including expanding participation of women in science and science policymaking and institutionalising the scientific advisory process within national parliaments and governments.

Yuan Tseh Lee, president of the International Council for Science (ICSU) said the declaration “touched upon many important things, but the most important thing is we all seem to be willing and committed to establish sustainable, equitable and just human civilisation” in what is a “very difficult time”.

Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, chair of the UK’s Royal Society Advisory Group, who gave a lecture on international collaboration at the forum, told SciDev.Net the declaration was “good”. “It has all the right things; the need to cooperate better and work across boundaries and by working together we can better solve problems”.

But some scientists said that the recommendations of  were not strong enough.

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


A new scientific landscape – and countries that don’t fit in

November 17, 2011

Romain Murenzi: "Progress uneven"

Although the world is witnessing the emergence of new scientific powerhouses such as Brazil, China and India, the least developed countries are being left behind, the World Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary heard today (17 November).

Progress  (or otherwise) that emerging countries have made, and the rise in global collaborations in science and technology (S&T) have been the main threads of the talks at the forum so far.

Romain Murenzi, executive director of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world said: “The progress that has been made is undeniable. But it has also been uneven”.

We must remember that our goal should be to build scientific capacity in all countries, he said, “in ways that enable science to become a global enterprise in the truest sense of the word”.

“Just six countries in the developing world account for more than three quarters of the scientific articles published in peer-reviewed international journals authored by scientists from the South,” he said.

He told SciDev.Net on the sidelines of the forum that some 2 billion people living in 81 developing countries that are scientifically lagging are still not seeing the benefits of growing global science.

These countries, mainly from Africa and the Islamic region, have been left behind in this new landscape, he said.

“The North-South gap in scientific capacity is narrowing on a global scale. But the country-to-country gap remains as wide as ever. A bi-polar world in science has become a multi-polar world in science. The age-old problem of yawning disparities between scientifically advanced and scientifically lagging countries persists – only in a different configuration.”

He sees part of the solution in more scientific collaboration and exchange between emerging countries and least developed ones. Students from lagging countries can now get the same quality science education in the emerging countries of the South as they can in the North but for less money. And those emerging countries benefit from the original points of view these students bring with them and the knowledge they create that stays in the host country.

 Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


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