More than 200 leading scientists and policymakers, mainly African, gather in Nairobi on Monday for a two-day international conference to strengthen the influence of African scientists on the policies of their governments. The meeting is the first in an expected annual series and is an initiative of the U.S. National Academies of Science. The organization is providing money and expertise to build the capacity of its counterparts in several African nations to give advice on the scientific and health issues challenging them.
Most academies of science around the world are honorary societies, but the charter of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences requires it to provide advice to the government by volunteer members.
"When you lack good scientific input, you often don't deliver the intended results," said Patrick Kelley, the director of a global health panel at a branch of the U.S. National Academies called the Institute of Medicine. Dr. Kelley says African scientists should have the same opportunity to advise their governments as their U.S. counterparts do.
"Most academies around the world represent a pool of expertise that can greatly assist governments in addressing a whole array of scientific issues, particularly health issues," he explained. "So what we are attempting to do is improve the capacity of academies in Africa to mobilize their membership for roles that may not be traditional for them, roles where they are actually contributing to policy advice."
Several African science academies are already working toward these goals, but most have little experience in marshaling their scientific and medical communities for expert advice. Organizers of the Nairobi conference say government decision-making in many African countries is disconnected from scientific and technical knowledge in universities and industry.
So the two-day Nairobi meeting aims to help reverse this by informing scientists, engineers, and medical workers on ways to advise government leaders in areas such as disease prevention and the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. African nations collectively expressed their desire to apply science to these pressing needs as one of the goals of the 2001 New Partnership for Africa's Development.
The Nairobi meeting includes discussion by former U.S. government administrators on their experiences with the U.S. National Academies, which convenes experts to examine the scientific aspects of policies and make recommendations for action.
The U.S. National Academies' effort will begin in South Africa, Nigeria, and Uganda, supported by a $20 million grant from the charitable organization founded by Microsoft computer software billionaire Bill Gates. Patrick Kelley says South Africa and Nigeria have the largest scientific capacity in sub-Saharan Africa. Uganda's scientific prowess is much smaller, but size and ability were not the only criteria for selecting partner academies.
"We looked at many things, too, including the receptivity of the governments and civil society to independent scientific advice," he explained. "That was a particularly attractive aspect to Uganda, the receptivity of its government and the liveliness of its media in using scientific advice to foster discussion on health issues."
To help the three African national academies' tackle their challenges, the U.S. academies will train staff members to conduct scientific studies and major conferences that offer policy guidance, raise money from outside sources, and cultivate relationships with public and private sector officials.
Eventually, Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya will be included in the project with financial help from the Canadian government. But Dr. Kelley says the initiative will also support various meetings at which members of all African science academies can participate.
"Quality science can help solve many of the problems that have been holding back Africa," he said.