African nations are increasingly taking control of their own science funding — but they must keep the money coming, writes Linda Nordling.
When it emerged earlier this year that Uganda's government was not planning to renew a low-interest science loan from the World Bank, Ugandan scientists were alarmed.
The move was called a "hair raiser" by one scientist, "mind boggling" by another and "sickening" by a third.
Their reaction is not surprising. The US$33 million Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) loan, dating from 2007, supports 22 research projects and training for more than 3,660 scientists and engineers. It has also helped to update science departments across the country.
The loss of these activities would doubtless harm Uganda's science base. But the government did not mean to scrap them — it wanted to start funding them itself.
"The government believes that science and technology is an important sector whose funding it must prioritise and take over. The government has therefore pledged to provide money that it would otherwise borrow from the bank," an official from the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology said in April.
The desire to 'nationalise' science — to take direct financial and management control of it — is an increasingly common refrain on the African continent.
Many countries are keen to expand their domestic science budgets, even if few have gone as far as Uganda in turning down offers of foreign assistance.
Tanzania and Kenya both made cash pledges to science and innovation in their latest budget rounds, published in June.
And there have been repeated warnings that African dependence on foreign funders and aid agencies has resulted in a fragmented, donor-driven research landscape that needs more domestic drivers.
Evidence of African nationalism (or Afro-centrism) can also be seen in continent-wide science programmes, such as the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII) initiative, which is gathering research, development and innovation data to monitor the continent's science performance. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics already collects such information, but with ASTII the data will, for the first time, be 'Africa-owned'.
"This is how it is done elsewhere in the world. Africa wants to do the same," says Philippe Mawoko, ASTII coordinator.
Similarly, the African Union is expected to launch its long-awaited Research Grants Programme within the next few months. The programme will be bankrolled by the European Union, but for the first time research proposals will be evaluated in Addis Ababa, rather than Brussels or Washington.
African governments have been pledging to spend more on science and technology for 30 years. But poor public finances, combined with flagging political will, have stopped them turning their promises into concrete action. Most Sub-Saharan African countries spend an average of just 0.3 per cent of their GDP on science and technology — a far cry from the one per cent promised in 1980 and again in 2005.
So how are countries planning to fund their science push now?
Most other African countries have no such windfalls. Many are merely hoping for a return to the rates of growth seen before the recent financial crisis. Some, like Kenya and Tanzania, are turning to international financial markets and looking to release sovereign bonds this year.
Few seem interested in boosting aid levels — although direct aid will keep propping up several African governments for years to come. Foreign aid seems to have become unfashionable, with many countries outlining plans to reduce aid dependency in their 2010 budgets.
Talking to African policymakers confirms the view that many on the continent now subscribe to Zambian economistDambisa Moyo's argument that direct aid to governments simply perpetuates Africa's woes.
This may partly explain why Uganda's government feels compelled to turn down cheap loans for science and will try to raise the cash itself.
The latest attempts to raise national science budgets in Africa have been a long time coming and should be welcomed with open arms. But if science nationalism is allowed to run rampant, it could pose a serious threat.
If a government turns down an offer of outside funding because it wants to prove a point about self-reliance, rather than through a genuine desire to build up a strong science base, the results could be disastrous.
Unless the whole government strongly supports the move, science could easily be forgotten in subsequent budget rounds, causing a rapid decline in the sector.
In this light, perhaps Uganda's scientists are right to be nervous. They may sleep more soundly if their government renews a portion of the MSI agreement — just in case the national funding fails to materialise.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, The Guardian, Nature and others.