Political momentum is growing in both Europe and Africa behind the idea that investment in research facilities is as important as investment in roads and schools for a country’s development.
But a lot of work needs to be done over the next few months, on both sides, to ensure that a willingness in principle to commit such funding is translated into the practical steps needed to get the money flowing.
This was the main conclusion to emerge from a two-day conference that took place as part of the meeting on EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration, which ended in Brussels on Friday.
The workshop was the concluding event of a two-year initiative, funded by the European Union, known as Promoting Africa-EU Research Partnership Infrastructure Project (PAERIP).
So far, the most concrete result of the PAERIP project – considered as essential background for any future investment – has been a 227-entry inventory of existing research facilities in Africa that is already available on the PAERIP website.
The overall conclusions of the project have yet to be formally completed. But their main thrust is captured in a statement issued at the end of the previous PAERIP meeting, held in Ghana last December.
In particular, those attending the Ghana meeting agreed that that research infrastructures should be a priority focus of bi-regional cooperation in science, technology and innovation between Africa and the European Union.
The more detailed conclusions of the PAERIP project are still being drawn up, and will take into account a number of points raised in discussion during the Brussels conference.
One was that it was essential for politicians to be able to demonstrate to their electorates the direct benefits to be drawn from investment in research infrastructure, which are usually much less visible than large scale construction projects, such as building a new road or airport.
“If you can show the benefits that are likely to emerge, you will oil the process of finding development funding,” said Francisco Affinito, a policy officer with the European Commission’s development directive.
He also he emphasised that demand for investment in research facilities needed to come from African countries themselves if it was to become part of mainstream development funding.
A second conclusion likely to be highlighted in the final PAERIP report is the need to ensure that spending on infrastructure is complemented by investment in “human capacity development” – in other words, in producing the researchers able to use it effectively.
Participants at the meeting said that it was unlikely that a new funding line would be opened up to cover European support for research infrastructure in Africa; there are already too many demands on the EU budget.
But there was general optimism among those leaving the conference that, providing the ways can be found of using existing funding instruments, the money will begin to flow before too long.