The long shadow of UNESCO funding cuts

November 20, 2011
Aloizio Mercadante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

WHO polio eradication target may continue to be missed

June 27, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maina Waruru, freelance science journalist and SciDev.Net contributor

Who networks the networks?

October 5, 2010

Networks can be hard to visualise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

Tax-free science – a boon to Africa?

October 5, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Munyaradzi Makoni, freelance journalist

Catching up with Tanzania

October 5, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

The problems of presidential patronage

September 24, 2010

Delegates networking at Acholi Inn, Gulu

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

Science and innovation: a masterclass

September 23, 2010

South African delegates, Mjwara is second from the right

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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