The U.S. National Academy of Sciences is embarking on a project to help African scientists influence the policies of their governments. It will provide money and expertise to build the capacity of science academies in several African nations to give advice on the scientific and health issues challenging them.

Most academies of sciences around the world are honorary societies, but the charter of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences calls on it to provide advice to the government by volunteer members.

"When you lack good scientific input, you often don't deliver the intended result," said Patrick Kelley, the director of a global health panel at a branch of the U.S. National Academy 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 said. "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 national science academies are already working toward these goals, but most have existed only a few decades and have little experience in marshaling their scientific and medical communities for expert advice. The continent's challenges are formidable - the HIV epidemic, chronic malnutrition, and life-threatening childhood conditions such as malaria and diarrhea. African nations collectively expressed their desire to apply science to meet these pressing needs as one of the goals of the 2001 New Partnership for Africa's Development.

The U.S. National Academy effort will begin in South Africa, Nigeria, and Uganda, supported by a $20 million grant from the charitable organization founded by Microsoft computer software multi-billionaire Bill Gates. Dr. 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. 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," said Dr. Kelley.

To help the three national academies' tackle their challenges, the U.S. academy 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," concluded Dr. Kelley.