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close this bookThe Courier N 130 Nov - Dec 1991 - Dossier: Oil - Reports: Kenya - The Comoros (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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View the documentScientific research: a partners’ forum

Scientific research: a partners’ forum

by Mahammadou LY and Grd WINTER

More than three hundred research workers, research leaders, representatives of regional, international and non-governmental organisations, funders etc met to discus the conditions for lasting research in sub-Saharan Africa at the Ministry of Research and Technology in Paris recently.

The debate, ran by ORSTOM with the help of various other French research establishments, was held under the patronage of the President of the Republic, the French Ministers of Research and Technology, and of Cooperation and Development, the African Academy of Science and the Third World Academy of Science.

The past 30 years have seen a number of conferences on science in Africa and this one was a continuation of previous initiatives, although the idea this time was to concentrate on direct, friendly but plain-speaking dialogue between research workers, research leaders and funders.

Academic discussion was out, the point of the meeting being to identify and seek ways and means of creating the conditions for lasting research in sub-Saharan Africa.

A four-point debate

The forum focused on four main topics - the environment, agriculture, health and controlling development - which were tabled for discussion because the African and French organisations taking part had solid experience of them all which could be brought to bear in a partnership. They are of course also major scientific aspects of development.

Each workshop agreed to help clarify the conclusions of the forum by organising its discussions around a chart. This contained four questions on four aspects of a genuine cooperation research policy, as follows:

1. On what scientific subjects should we concentrate as a matter of priority?
2. How can we encourage the organisation and improvement of areas of scientific cooperation?
3. How can scientific partners from the North be more involved in cooperation with the South?
4. How can the regular transfer of knowledge and know-how be encouraged?

Reports from the four workshops were material for a round table, which used their conclusions as a basis on which to take up institutional positions on the constraints which had been identified and the measures proposed.

Summary of the workshops

The scientific priorities discussed at the beginning of the workshops (and set out beforehand by the countries themselves and in various consultation bodies) turned out to be badly formulated. However, they were fruitfully discussed and some workshops managed to come up with unifying themes, rather than new priorities, involving many priorities and a whole range of operators and methods of organisation The reference to ‘health systems’ in the health workshop is one example.

There was some very practical discussion of two sets of strategic objectives in relation to the conditions (i.e. the organisation and support) of lasting research.

Objective n°1: Visible, lasting research staff

There are three conditions here:

1. Support for young scientists

Young scientists should get support both during training and in the early years of their research career.

‘Support’ here means the stimulus they need to function - material help, of course (payment or allowances and the right sort of infrastructure), social backing (a social and political environment in which they are recognised) and scientific backing to reduce any sense of isolation and make for easier self-expression.

The main thing is to help the partners in the South (not just the States) to take on individuals and teams on a lasting basis and assess their performance regularly. This triggered the idea of promoting foundations like the independent bodies in North and South America, which can mobilise extra (and possibly private) financing.

2. Regular, stringent evaluation of individuals and teams

This is a sine qua non if researchers are to be visible and stay on the job. The research they carry out must be scientifically selected and subject to double assessment.

‘Scientifically selected research’ means that if the scientific problems are the upshot of development problems, they must be formulated and assessed with a view to lasting fruitfulness and integration in international research in general. This means work must comply with standards of quality which the funders who use the results cannot lay down on their own - a demand which is a sign of the vitality of the scientific milieu.

‘Doubly assessed research’ is work which is both evaluated positively by the reference scientific communities (including, naturally, and first but not solely, those in the South) and able to be called on afterwards by the political leaders. This twofold (scientific and social) consideration is a protection against budgetary fluctuation, but it only has any meaning if the research submitted for assessment has received a minimum of the requisite support and the positive judgment means that the individual research worker or the team can continue to function.

When the very delicate issue of ‘suitable’ assessment was discussed, it was suggested that a think-tank be set up under the aegis of an African scientific institution such as CAMES (the African Academy of Science or the African and Mauritian Council for Higher Education).

3. Universities in the South involved in research via involvement in research training.

This is a problem in many African universities, particularly in French-speaking countries, and a number of the workshops dealt with it, stressing that universities were, per se, places of independence and learning whose duty was to host people and ideas and foster international exchanges. They were also places in which training should stimulate research and vice versa, in particular via pre-doctoral and doctoral courses geared to the realities of the country and reflecting results obtained in the field.

French research establishments, ORSTOM especially, are willing to be involved in regional doctoral training courses etc in Africa which are also open to future scientists from the North.

Objective n°2: Consolidated regional implementation machinery

This too can be divided into three sets of proposals.

Decompartmentalised scientific areas

This is the burning question of regional-sub-regional (new institutions are not necessarily to be created) machinery to enable the national research systems to work together, to complement each other and share the tasks to be done in various fields. The idea is to join together to ensure coherence, a factor of durability, by facilitating scientific cooperation with the North and encouraging external financing. It has triggered a great deal of thought and given rise to many questions, initiatives and projects.

The workshops spent some time on the subject and their reports to their colleagues revealed considerable similarities and complementarities in their work - hence a first firm and urgent call for periodic inventories of operators, programmes, establishments and teams to ensure that everyone was kept properly informed about what was happening everywhere else. One or two examples of decompartmentalised scientific areas - the onchoserciasis control programme and the OCCGE (Organisation for Coordination and Cooperation in the Control of Major Endemic Diseases in West Africa) and OCEAC (the Organisation for Coordination in Control of Endemic Diseases in Central Africa), the regional health organisations - were to be cultivated. Almost all the workshops agreed with the idea of setting up common observation networks - study and inventory locations and ecological stations for environmental research and observatories (along the lines of those which Cameroon already had for social change and innovation) for social science research. The agriculture workshop stressed the originality and interest of initiatives of the CORAF (Conference of Agricultural Research Leaders in Africa) type. No one denied the interest of networks, but the concept of a central base, as a national unit of regional importance, needed clearer definition.

The European Community’s STD Programme targeted financing on schemes involving a number of teams from both North and South.

Lastly, mention was made of a very promising initiative in which partners of different statuses were associated in a simple, original and lasting manner. It was a major programme on maniocbased production systems in Africa with carefully planned procedures associating CORAF, the IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), teams from various African countries and the North and a variety of disciplines ranging from the most advanced research to the most vital of applications, given that manioc was a staple of millions.

Regular involvement of researchers and scientific establishments in the North

This was essential, first of all, because some problems (AIDS, the environment, town planning, migration etc) had to be tackled jointly.

It was also important because scientists from the South asked scientists from the North to help them join in the main international research movements and programmes and encourage their scientific and social legitimation.

There were many ways of doing this:

- large-scale joint programmes, networks, twinning etc.

There were many needs:

- reception, training, maintenance and documentation;

- help with improving the staff and structure assessment procedures to reflect the singular conditions of research in the countries of the South;

- coordination of supply from the North.

Consolidated arrangements for financing from the North

There is a barrier to break down here.

With one-off external financing - i.e. scheme by scheme, source by source and therefore procedure by procedure - research cannot be coherent or work to a long-term plan with clearly defined aims and it is therefore difficult to assess either its scientific worth or the stringency of its management.

There again, the bodies concerned are gradually awakening to this difficult issue. There is talk of baskets of funds to support institutes rather than just finance programmes and trials which are being run. In Madagascar, for example, a financing committee has been set up under the control of scientists to combine financing from a variety of sources for an existing long-term master plan. This is also a central aim of SPAAR (the Special Programme for African Agricultural Research).

The forum ended with a moral mandate, whereby participants jointly undertook to find practical ways of ensuring the three fundamental aims of:

- better coordination of the supply of research in the North;

- ways and means of providing lasting support (funds, foundations etc) for institutions and researchers in the South;

- decompartmentalisation of scientific areas with a view to better regional cooperation.

ML & GW