Kenya’s draft bill promises a hike to 2% of GDP for science

August 23, 2012


Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

It has never been disputed that Africa must increase her spending on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). It is also true that research on the continent is heavily funded by donors, with governments prioritizing expenditure on social development.

Calls have been made for authorities to raise STI spending and the African Union (AU) countries have all agreed, resolving to increase funding to at least one per cent of their GDP. This, however, has never happened, and only South Africa comes remotely close to attaining that figure.

But next year, Kenya could become the first country to reach this target, and perhaps even exceed it.

Margaret Kamar speaking at the ASJC. Photo credit: AbsfAfrica, Twitter

The country’s minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, Margaret Kamar, says her ministry has prepared an STI policy bill that has recommended that the government ups spending on this key sector to two per cent.“The draft bill has now been approved by the cabinet ahead of debate in parliament,” she told the Africa Science Journalists Conference. “The good news is that the cabinet has unanimously agreed on recommendations for increased funding.”

The move means that the draft law will now move to parliament for debate and enactment. Since there is no apparent reason why the funding would be opposed, the STI sector in Kenya should be successful.

This could begin as soon as next June when budget proposals are tabled before parliament, making the east African country compliant with STI funding agreements.

There is reason for optimism after all.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Engaging Vulnerable Communities in Health Research

August 23, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust Research Programme has revised its research activities to include vulnerable community members as key stakeholders.

“It seems curious that we invest millions of dollars in product development, clinical training, design and building of facilities but often leave out vital processes of community engagement,” Ruth Wanjala, the communications officer for the KEMRI Wellcome Trust told participants attending the ASJC.

Engagement is coordinated by the programme’s community liaison group, elected representatives who act as an interface between the research centre and the community.

Community meeting in Kenya. Photo credit: waterdotorg, flickr

The group is also responsible for community relations between the research centre and the locals.“The community liaison group meet with local administrative, religious and opinion leaders to engage them with our research activities and distribute information, education and communication materials to other community members,” said Wanjala.

She noted that it is necessary to have a structured engagement mechanism with policymakers through Kenya’s ministries of health to translate research outcomes into policy and practice.

The KEMRI Wellcome Trust works across several African countries and is recognized for its research in malaria and many other areas of health.

According to Wanjala, the centre has so far produced over 45 African PhDs and another 44 are currently undertaking their PhD training.

The ASJC is expected to come to a close later today with an African declaration on effective science reporting.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Biotechnology regulation is “stifling growth”

August 22, 2012


Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

Stringent regulation of biotechnology is making students in African universities shy away from postgraduate study, as they believe it will be difficult to find jobs.

The strict regulation has stifled growth of biotechnology, making it hard for graduates to find jobs or put their knowledge to practical use. Meanwhile, the continent continues to be in urgent need of technologies to solve her myriad food, health and development problems.

As a result, graduates with a first degree in biosciences are finding jobs in unrelated fields such as banking, due to a lack of opportunities in the biotech sub-sector.

“In Kenya’s Kenyatta university, the master’s course used to be able to attract as many as 45 students,” said Professor Eucharia Kenya, a former lecturer at the institution and now a consultant at the International Centre for Health Interventions and Research in Africa (ICHIRA). “Now, even getting ten is becoming a problem.”

At a session on biotechnology and food security at the ASJC, she warned that strict regulation was ‘killing’ the key sub-sector, putting graduates off pursuing postgraduate study.

Analysis in a Kenyan lab. Photo credit: Sustainable sanitation, flickr

Another speaker, Dr Roy Mugira, a technology policy specialist with Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, told the event that biotechnology is most expendable unit in the biological sciences.

“African governments are quick to put regulation in place on biotechnology before they have even acquired the technologies,” he said.

He observed that African countries often ‘play the victim’ with biotechnology, behaving as if the field was promoted internationally with the purpose of harming them.

This, he noted, means that governments heavily legislate the technology as opposed to exploring the area, resulting in stifled growth.

“When you over-regulate biotechnology, you strangle technology, leaving little space for growth or commercialisation,” noted Dr Mugira.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Telling stories using data and numbers

August 22, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

After an evening involving a tranquil dinner and free-flowing drinks at the ASJC’s opening ceremony yesterday, the participants embarked on serious business by dividing into various topic-specific groups.

Of particular interest was the session on data journalism run by Ernest Waititu, the programme director of health and digital media for Internews in Kenya.

In Waititu’s own words, “we live in a world where almost everything is expressed in numbers”. As the concept of telling stories using figures, numbers and data was fairly new, participants attending the session were shown how to get started with data journalism by being taken through sets of data.

“Mine the data first to find where the story is and humanize it,” said Waititu. It was an interactive session where journalists were taught hands-on data mining, filtering and analytical skills.

“In data journalism, there are so many stories to tell,” he said, adding that journalists need to know how to process numbers in Excel and other similar software programs.

Data journalism training in Nairobi. Photo credit: Friedrich Lindenberg

According to Waititu, journalists need to know how the public system works and how to interpret laws for effective use of data. “If a journalist doesn’t understand how the institutions of his or her country work, the data trail can be frustrating,” he said.

With most university journalism schools not teaching data journalism, journalists were encouraged to utilise any available training opportunities.

The first hands-on training session on data journalism was held earlier this year in Nairobi by the World Bank, Google (Open Knowledge Foundation) and the African Media Initiative.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Kenya to establish grant for women in science

August 22, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

Women scientists in Kenya got a major boost yesterday when the government announced it would establish a grant which awards female scientists up to three million Kenyan shillings. The announcement was made during the opening ceremony of the ASJC in Nakuru.

The move will put women scientists on a par with their male counterparts, allowing them to conduct research of relevance to the country.

“Participation of women in research has been low in many developing countries,” said Moses Rugutt, deputy secretary of Kenya’s National Council of Science and Technology during the ASJC opening gala. “Negative social and cultural practices have not allowed full exploitation of their research potential.”

Female PhD student collecting samples in Uganda. Photo credit: Karen Homer, AWARD

Rugutt noted that national development depends on a well-trained technical labour force, especially in science and technology.

“Kenya still lags behind in the technical human capacity required to unlock the huge potential within its agricultural fields and drive its industries,” he said.

Rugutt called for the need to lobby for at least one per cent GDP investment for Kenya to reap the full potential of science, technology and innovation (STI) for socio-economic development.

He challenged the science journalists attending the ASJC to help push the STI agenda to enable African countries to use science and technology as a platform to boost economic development.

According to Rugutt, there is a need to engage science journalists in effectively articulating STI issues by disseminating research information on STI, setting national and regional STI agendas and exposing scientific malpractice.

Many developing countries of the world have used STI to drive their development agenda based on sound research and innovative technological investment.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Journalists urged to educate public on harmful impacts of science

August 22, 2012


Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) will release a report next month on the Global Chemicals Outlook project, detailing the impact of harmful chemicals on human health.

The report will be looking at the “massive” health and environmental impact that farm chemicals including pesticides and fertilizers have had on human health. There will be a special emphasis on developing countries, including Africa.

UNEP’s public communications officer Bryan Coll said the report, which will be made public on 4 September, will seek to capture the effect that chemicals such as lead and mercury are having on the planet. He added that it will also focus on actions which could help to minimise the impact.

Fertilising a field in north Africa. Photo credit: 10b travelling, flickr

Each year, billions of dollars are spent in managing the effects of chemicals on the planet. “The report will highlight the fact that by the year 2020, the effect of these chemicals on human health will reach US$90 billion,” Coll told the audience.

He told the ASJC that journalists must play their role in educating the public on how harmful scientific practices impact on public welfare.

“Proper packaging of science news stories will compel editors to use the stories and eventually we may see science news making headlines,” he said, observing that the perennial complaint that many African editors lack science coverage was slowly going away.

While little science news makes it on to the front page in Africa, Coll said there was a light at the end of the tunnel as news organisations are slowly but steadily making progress.

William Odinga, head of the Uganda Science Journalism Assocation, suggested that the prominence of science affairs was inevitable. He noted that science makes headlines when major public health issues arise, such as the recent outbreak of Ebola disease in Uganda.

Science writers ought to be better trained and go beyond mere reporting by being able to expose scientific malpractices such as exaggeration by experts, said Joseph Rugut, deputy head of Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

ASJC kicks off in Nakuru

August 21, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

The first Africa Science Journalists Conference took off on a high note in Kenya’s Nakuru town, the scenic tourist attraction in the spectacular Rift Valley. On the first day, journalists visited various field sites to give them an insight into the work of research institutions within the town.

Journalists had the chance to see a Home-Based Testing and Counselling programme which operates door-to-door among the manyattas (Maasai houses). This project offers HIV testing within the Maasai community and is run by Liverpool VCT, a Kenyan NGO. Other tour sites included Egerton University’s agro-based science park and a project to increase rust resistance in wheat at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. Nakuru’s Nuru farm was also open to visitors, a former hospital dump which now produces 60 tonnes of fruit and vegetables a year.

Nakuru, Kenya. Photo credit: meg and rahul, flickr

Over the next four days, ASCJ 2012 will attempt to answer questions around communicating new information and countering scepticism, with talks such as ‘Using nonsense detectors: how journalists can expose bad science’; ‘Community based Interventions in Science’ and ‘Ethical issues in science journalism in the age of new media’.

The apex of the conference will be an African declaration on effective science communication, which will “seek a binding commitment from African journalists, communicators and researchers to improve science writing in the continent”.

With high hopes for this high-profile conference achieving its objectives, the SciDev.Net team attending the forum will keep you posted on the latest developments.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

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