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.

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.

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.

‘No need for alarm’ over funding from Brussels

November 29, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

With member countries of the European Union (EU) currently sharply divided over funding for future programmes of the European Commission (EC), there is naturally some concern about the potential implications for research projects, including those being carried out jointly with researchers in Africa.

There was therefore some relief when EC official Carlos Oliveira told the 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, being held in Lisbon, Portugal, that even if some adjustments are needed to plans that have already been proposed for future funding, “the essence of the proposals remain valid”.

Oliveira, a policy officer with the commission’s directorate general for communications networks, content and technologies (DG CONNECT), referred in particular to the multi-year Horizon 2020 programme, planned for the period 2014-2018, a period covered by the current negotiations.

EU flag (Flickr/European Parliament)

This is due to succeed the current Framework 7 programme – the main channel for funding research projects, including those involving developing countries – which ends next year.

While the commission has proposed total funding for Horizon 2020 of €80 billion, some of the EU members states seeking major reductions in the overall budget are suggesting that this should be cut to €60 billion (in contrast, the European Parliament, has suggested a much higher budget, of around €100 billion).

Oliveira said that the general feeling in Brussels is that there is likely to be some fine-tuning in the Horizon 2020 programme. And that, at the end of the day, the current expectation is that “there may be a budget reduction of five to ten per cent”.

“But this does not put in doubt the fundamental principles of the proposed programme,” he said, referring to a general feeling that, even in times of economic crisis, spending on research and innovation represents a sound investment in the future.

In particular, the Horizon 2020 programme is likely to maintain a strong focus on core ICT activities, he said. Anticipated to account for 20% of the total budget, this includes research on the future of the internet, next generation computing, content technologies and information management, advanced interfaces and key enabling technologies (such as nanotechnology).

A further €4 billion is being allocated to the use ICT in tackling societal challenges such as health, energy, transport, and climate action.

“International cooperation will remain a cross-cutting issue in Horizon 2020,” Oliveira reassured his audience.

“We want to maximise the impact of this cooperation,” he said, adding that the commission is currently developing a detailed strategy for international cooperation in ICT, looking in particularly at ways of developing partnerships with other countries are mutually beneficial.

So, no back-tracking is anticipated in Brussels in this area, however difficult the task of arriving at a final budget turns out over the weeks ahead. Which was a relief to hear for many participating in the Lisbon meeting, whose future plans might otherwise be on the line.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

The way ahead on ICT: progress through partnership

November 28, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

The geographical proximity between Africa and Europe has inevitably led to a long and close relationship between the two continents. Over the past few centuries, colonialism has meant that the relationship has often been a painful one, with Europe as the dominant partner reaping the greater benefits.

Today, as speakers emphasised at the first session of the 2012 Africa EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, which opened this morning in Lisbon, Portugal, the situation is very different. Cooperation between neighbours for mutual benefit is the theme of the day. And nowhere, it was stressed, is the potential for cooperation stronger that in the field of information and communication technologies.

As Moctar Yedely, head of the information society division of the African Union Commission, put it: “our relationship is something that should never fail because we are so geographically close that we have no choice but to be close and to be friends”.

Yedely stressed that ICT was about more than telephones and computers. “It is about those applications that will bring value to transforming African societies”. He added: “If a small village in Africa has access to the potential of ICT, it may bring benefits to a remote village in Europe”.

Zoran Stancic, deputy head of the European Commission’s directorate general for communication networks, content and technology (DG-Connect), emphasised that joint work on ICTs was a central element of the broader partnership between Africa and the European Union (EU).

He pointed out that the EU already recognised ICT as providing a central pillar for facilitating growth and jobs. “We see the same thing happening throughout Africa,” he said, pointing out that the number of mobile phone users in Africa had grown from 8 million to 800 million today.

Stancic said that there was an “avalanche” of new innovative solutions being developed in Africa. For example, innovation in mobile banking in Kenya was a success story that needed to be promoted in a broader context.

Cooperation in research was one way that Europe could help Africa achieve more successes. He said that there had been a constant rise in the number of African institution participating in Europe’s framework programmes, from 40 partners in the 6th Framework Programme (which lasted from 2002 to 2006) to more than one hundred in the current 7th Framework Programme.

“We see the next framework programme as an important instrument to help this flourish in the future,” Stancic added. “A proper approach to facilitating cooperation between EU researchers and researchers in Africa can bring benefits to both sides. We want to work together to support capacity building in Africa, but European scientists can also benefit from our friends and partners in Africa.”

The current challenge, both in Europe and Africa, he said, was to promote success stories in a way that would help political leaders “make the right choices in the future”.

Portugal, the host for today’s meeting – and one that has the longest links with Africa of any European country – is one country that needs little convincing.

Leonor Parreira, the secretary of state at the country’s Ministry of Education and Science, said that Portugal was committed to continuing initiatives that had already been started in area related to ICT, and to build on established alliances to evolve strong knowledge networks based on regional diversity and complementary.

“It is critical that these partnerships become sounder to overcome differences between cultures and demonstrate that we have common interests,” Parreira said. “ICT has the potential to enable this.”

Lots of fine words. The next two days will show what they mean in practice.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

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