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
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
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
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
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
The European Communitys 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
- 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
- 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.