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The US National Academies African Science Academy Development Initiative: Harnessing Science and Technology Expertise for Development in Afr

by Patrick Kelley  

At the root of many obstacles hindering sustainable development in Africa today one often finds problems susceptible to scientifically-driven solutions. Tackling challenges such as AIDS, malaria, hunger, lack of safe water, and high maternal mortality is central to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for 2015. Innovative science and technology solutions will be essential to their achievement. Science also has a central role in identifying sustainable and effective means to alleviate poverty and create the modicum of wealth needed for advancement. Africa, though, has limited and unevenly distributed scientific capacity, and the capacity found in academia and industry is not sufficiently integrated into national and regional policymaking to have the desired impact on policy and planning.

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The US National Academies

A model to better mobilize African scientific advisory capacity to serve the continent is now being implemented under the US National Academies African Science Academy Development Initiative. Since 1863, the US National Academies - founded as the National Academy of Sciences but now also encompassing the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council - have not only honored esteemed scientists, but also mobilized their advice at the request of the US government to address scientific questions of importance to national policy. This blending of a traditional honorific role and a legislatively chartered advisory role is a relatively unique characteristic of the US National Academies compared with other academies in economically advanced countries. Every year, the US National Academies receive several hundred million dollars of support to convene scores of study groups involving thousands of scientists to deliberate on questions ranging from the health of war veterans to science curriculum for elementary schools. Most of these studies are requested by Congress or government agencies and provide the highest level of independent, apolitical, unbiased advice for use by government officials and other stakeholders. 

African Science Academies

The African Science Academy Development Initiative was established in 2004 to assist African science academies in serving a similar advisory role for their governments.  Making efficient use of national scientific capability in the African context is perhaps even more critical than in the United States, given the scarcity of scientists and resources.  Over the last decade, issues in certain African countries such as the cause of AIDS, polio immunization, and the safety of genetically modified foods eluded scientific resolution for too long with costly consequences. A local and more effective science policy establishment might have been able to save thousands of lives though more timely mobilization and communication of what science knows concerning these and other issues. Almost certainly, strengthened African academies will be able to foster policies to save or extend millions of lives by settling questions now facing the continent on such topics as the use of DDT as an interior residual spray to prevent malaria, agricultural productivity, nutritional supplementation in AIDS patients, the sustainable development of cities, and approaches to the provision of safe water. 


The National Academies African Science Academy Development Initiative is funded with a ten-year $20 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The primary goal of the effort is to advance the ability of nations in Africa to address their most serious health challenges by: (1) enhancing the capacity of African academies of science to provide independent, evidence-based policy advice to their governments, and (2) building African governments' appreciation of and demand for advice from these academies.


Over the next decade, the project will engage nationally based science academies in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda; the African regional science academy, the African Academy of Sciences (AAS); and the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC). 

The Partnership Program

The initiative began with an application process to select three of the eight African academy applicants for a particularly intense level of partnership. The academies chosen were those in Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa. While each shows great promise for providing evidence-based health policy advice, their selection also reflects the diversity of challenges they face, the receptivity of their governments to advice, and their access to a substantial pool of scientists to serve in an advisory capacity. 


The program will provide funds to hire and train staff members for each participating academy to prepare them to support the conduct of policy advisory activities and manage finances. Resources will be provided to promote continuous discussion and debate of evidence-based policy development in cross-cutting areas with a particular focus on health and sustainable development. Each partner academy will strengthen academy policy advisory capacities through technical assistance in the convening of forums and consensus studies. 


In the earliest years of the program, the activities will be funded entirely by the National Academies grant, but with experience and strengthened managerial and fiscal capacities, the African partners will be expected to raise matching funds and eventually conduct independent policy advisory activities. To support the advising processes, the program will develop human, material, and organizational infrastructures and build a regional alliance through annual symposia and learning collaborations. This will enable participating academies and leading scientists in non-participating countries to learn from and support each other as they develop their roles. 

Defining a Niche: Focus on Function and Forums

A critical focus will be to develop the demand from African governments and civil society organizations for evidence-based policy advice from African academies of science. To a large degree, science academies have not cultivated this advisory function in the past. Considerable effort will need to be expended to define their niche, especially in those countries where existing internal government agencies perceive that they serve this advisory function, and where the concept of an independent, non-governmental but formal advisory body has not been embraced.


To build academy recognition as a valuable convener of national stakeholders and as an entity for illuminating scientific issues, several of the partner academies will establish forums on evidence-based decision-making for health. These forums, modeled on the Institute of Medicine's Forum on Microbial Threats, will regularly bring together select individuals from government, academia, industry, and donor organizations to explore a contemporary health topic of critical importance such as stemming the brain drain of health professionals, the utility of various approaches to malaria and AIDS prevention, and disaster preparedness. It is hoped that these forums will give the African academies experience in mobilizing expertise on topics relevant to their governments and thus establish a more valuable role for themselves in the advancement of national health and science policies.


As this is a development project without clear precedent, it is expected that much learning by US National Academies and African academy partners will take place as a consequence of its execution. Since the initial intense focus is on only three of the academies, an external evaluation of project outcomes and the effectiveness of the processes used to achieve them has been incorporated into the methodology to determine how it can be improved and ultimately extended to other interested partner academies.  

Symposium in Nairobi

The idea of shared learning among all eight academies will be a featured aspect of the regional academy alliance being fostered through annual symposia. The first of these meetings will be a five-day event scheduled for Nairobi, Kenya on November 6-10, 2005. The theme of the meeting, which will be co-hosted by the Kenyan Academy of Science and the African Academy of Science, is "Improving Public Policy to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals in Africa: Harnessing Science and Technology Capacity." Through a series of presentations and roundtable discussions involving not only scientists but also government policymakers from each participating African country, the meeting will highlight key MDGs for which academies can supplement government resources and provide methodologically sound, politically neutral scientific advice. Current or former US government policymakers who have utilized National Academies advisory capabilities will also be present to help advance this vision. 


African development at this point in history is receiving a new infusion of attention from the more economically advanced parts of the world. Billions of dollars are being mobilized to fight AIDS, TB, and malaria and to foster good governance. The G8 once again addressed Africa's needs at its recent Gleneagles summit. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Blair's Commission on Africa forcefully stated that: "African poverty and stagnation is the greatest tragedy of our time. Poverty on such a scale demands a forceful response. And Africa - at country, regional, and continental levels - is creating much stronger foundations for tackling its problems." The African Science Academy Development Initiative is designed to lay cornerstones for those foundations in order to overcome the obstacles to mobilizing science and technology expertise from around the globe and make them available for the service of African societies. By establishing a strong partnership between the US National Academies and African academies, we embody the spirit of mutual respect and solidarity called for by the Blair Commission, and seek to support African approaches to performing the sound analyses needed to overcome their continent's scientific and health challenges. 

The author, Patrick W. Kelley, joined the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academies in July 2003 as the director of the Board on Global Health.  He has subsequently also been appointed the director of the Board on African Science Academy Development.


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