Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative for Africa

UNESCO has created a new flagship program, The International Basic Sciences Program (IBSP), that is to "reinforce intergovernmental co-operation in strengthening national capacities in the basic and engineering sciences and science education through major region-specific actions involving a network of national, regional and international centers of excellence in the basic sciences." The program was suggested by the government of the United States, and accepted by the members of UNESCO.

The G8 countries, including the United States, have agreed to double assistance to Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is a priority region for UNESCO. It now seems a good time for the United States to get behind a major initiative to build African capacity in the basic science and engineering, especially by building African capacity in science and engineering education at the tertiary level. UNESCO, even with its limited resources, could play a significant part in building such capacity, and U.S. public and private organizations could enter into formal and informal partnerships with UNESCO for this purpose.

What might such a program look like?

The UNESCO Chairs/UNITWIN Networks program would be an important element, supporting the improvement of science and engineering education in Africa. The existing network includes both natural and social sciences, as well as communications technologies. USAID might easily support greater twinning of U.S. universities with African universities, in support of the UNITWIN program, through its University Partnership Program and its collaboration with the network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The U.S. Telecommunications Training Institute might be used more to train African university faculty. The Institute serves as a broker between firms and government agencies offering free placements in its courses, and developing country professionals seeking such short-course training. The travel and living costs for the students have in many cases been supported by grants from donor agencies. Indeed, the program might be extended to other fields of science and engineering. Similarly, the infoDev-Motorola Fellowship program might be used as a model; in that program, Fellowships were awarded to faculty from developing countries to spend time at Motorola University, where they collaborated with its faculty to develop new curricula in wireless technology. There have also been programs in which research scientists and engineers from developing countries have served in firms abroad under exchange programs, in which their contribution to the host institution merited their pay, and only transportation costs needed to be subsidized. The beneficiaries of these programs returned to their home countries with professional linkages that lasted a lifetime, as well as with skills of applied research that benefited their professional functions.

It would seem useful to build on UNESCO's existing cooperation in science and technology The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)

Such a program might also build on UNESCO's offices in Africa, such as its International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa and its Office in Nairobi, Kenya (originally founded as its "Regional Center for Science and Technology" in Africa). The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, founded by UNESCO collaboratively with the Government of Italy and IAEA should also be involved.

UNESCO's science policy program could be expanded and extended in Africa, helping to build governmental science and engineering policy capacity. Its linkages with the Third World Academy of Sciences and the African Academy of sciences could be mobilized and utilized to improve the overall program. Efforts to strengthen African governmental science policy efforts might be coordinated with the National Academies of Science Initiative to Develop African Science Academies funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I would like to see USAID and/or foundations fund professional societies, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Society of Civil Engineers to build the capacity of their counterpart professional organizations in Africa, including their capacity to participate in science and technology policy.

UNESCO's natural science programs are especially strong in environmental fields. Its International Hydrological Program, International Oceanographic Commission program, Man and the Biosphere Program, and Basic and Engineering Science Program might all be encouraged to increase support for capacity building in their respective fields in Africa. The U.S. National Committees associated with some of these programs could be encouraged to stimulate U.S. organizations to collaborate with such an initiatives. USAID similarly could encourage collaboration between its programs in Africa and those of UNESCO.

UNESCO programs in the Social and Human Sciences seem especially pertinent to Africa's needs, including the Poverty Eradication and Social Transformation programs. UNESCO might be encouraged to extend their capacity building efforts in Africa. USAID especially, has a heavy emphasis on building democracy, and might collaborate in this field with UNESCO.

UNESCO actively recruits partners for its work, including partners from the private sector. Especially noteworthy are agreements UNESCO signed with Microsoft and Intel last year to support the use of ICT in education.

Non-governmental funding from the United States should be sought. A first stop might be the African Grantmakers Affinity Group. The Foundation Partnership to Strengthen African Universities, involving the Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur Foundations, has pledged $100 million dollars for that purpose, and would be an important partner. In this respect, The Nelson Mandela Institution for Knowledge Building and the Advancement of Science and Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa might be considered an important partner as it develops "The African Institute of Science and Technology).

I would suggest that a program might seek donations of services, computers, software, and scientific equipment from U.S. firms and government agencies. The engineering community might be tapped, including engineering firms and the Corps of Engineers. USAID's Ocean Freight Reimbursement program funds the transportation costs associated with such donations.

International Financial Institutions such as those of the World Bank Group and the African Development Bank already cooperate with UNESCO, as do many other bilateral donors. Coordination with these donor organizations would be important for a U.S. initiative to build scientific and technological capacity in Africa.

The African Diaspora might be involved. It has been estimated that 30,000 Africans with PhD's work outside Africa, more than half the Africans with such training. The Digital Diaspora Network, has been established by the UN ICT Commission to promote such activities. In Europe, there is a comparable organization, AFFORD (The African Foundation for Development).

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