African leaders embrace science continent-wide to drive development.

African Union Summit, Abuja, Nigeria. Next time they convene, the subject will be science.

When the African heads of state convene this January for the eighth annual African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, they will be investing in a revolutionary framework for Africa’s development. They have set their sights on science, technology and innovation—three institutions that can build the infrastructure for a 21st century sustainable Africa.

“The fact that the summit is on science and technology is an indication of political commitment,” says Aggrey Ambali, the coordinator of the African Biosciences Initiative, a project of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. “We need to harness that commitment.”

At the meeting, the AU will unveil the Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action, which comprises 12 flagship initiatives in areas including biotechnology, material sciences, space science, and laser technology. The plan, estimated to cost $158 million over five years, also includes a proposal for financing continent-wide research, the African Science and Innovation Facility.

With 24 million Africans suffering from HIV, 16 million starving, and many more afflicted by wars in the Congo, Sudan and the Ivory Coast, a complete renewal of Africa’s infrastructure is long overdue. In developing this plan, Africa is indicating a desire to move away from its dependence on short-term relief-based solutions, and toward the development of a long-term scientific infrastructure that generates its own solutions. At the core, it is an investment in Africa’s people, who, ideally, will shape a sustainable science culture.

This modern vision for an African science culture is not new. Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, the 2004 Millennium Project report, and the communiques of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development all argue that science is essential for African development. On the continent itself, Paul Kagame and Olusegun Obasanjo, the respective presidents of Rwanda and Nigeria, have long been ardent champions of science. Kagame created a Rwandan science ministry under his direct supervision last March, and in June, Nigeria approved a $5 billion endowment fund for science and technology.

But this January leaders from across the continent will finally formalize their belief in science’s transformative potential. “This is an opportunity where the African presidents collectively can signal to the rest of the world that they’re starting to make the transition toward integrating Africa into the global knowledge economy,” says Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University and cochair of the AU’s biotechnology initiative.

By writing science into the fabric of 21st-century African culture, national leaders also hope to reap rewards in the form of new international relationships. “Africa, in this regard, is defining the way it would like to relate to the rest of the world,” Juma says. “This will signal that scientific and technological partnerships are, in the future, going to become more important aspects of African diplomacy.”

Africa’s commitment to science will need to be followed up after the Summit and translated into tangible goals. Juma suggests establishing a presidential committee to maintain momentum; Ambala wants the existing African Peer Review Mechanism, set up by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, to include a periodic peer review of each country’s scientific and technological progress.

Science, according to Ambala, is a direct driver not only of technology, but also economic development. Although implementing these broad initiatives will be a challenge on a continent of diverse legacies, Africa’s leaders are taking the first key step by signaling their commitment to such an endeavor.

Originally published January 23, 2007

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