Innogen · News · September 12, 2006

Impressions from the Innogen Annual Conference: 942

Linda Nordling, editor of Research Africa, gives an insight into the Innogen 'Genomics for Development? The Life Sciences and Poverty Reduction' Conference held in London on 5-6 September.

The call came on the Saturday morning. Could I jump on a plane the following evening to travel from Cape Town, where I edit a new research policy magazine, to London to cover the Innogen conference on genomics and development? The trip was to play havoc with my deadlines, but it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Biotechnology is a hot potato in Africa, as in the rest of the world. There is a marked tension between the wish to invent rules to police the potentially harmful new technologies on the one hand, and the wish to employ science and technology as a tool to improve the lives of Africans on the other. The London conference would put these observations in context, investigate the success of existing initiatives and ask: what works? I was looking forward to hearing the issues presented in a less black-and-white fashion than tends to be the case in newspapers both on and off the continent.

I was also intrigued to see who would attend. There is a lot of money floating around in development research, and more to come as the UK Department for International Development (DFID) doubles its science and technology budget. The UK has excellent researchers who try to solve the problems of developing countries, and it's likely that a large chunk of the money will end up with them. But what about Africa's ability to help itself? Building science capacity in Africa is as important, if not more so, as finding solutions to imminent problems.

I was pleased to find out that it was John Mugabe, science and technology advisor for the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), who opened the conference rather than a UK minister. As a result, missing were the usual self-congratulatory speeches about the UK's leading role in pushing for science in development. Instead, we were treated to an African viewpoint.

African governments need to shape up on biotech, Mugabe said. There is a damaging disconnect between the wish to keep harmful science out and building R&D capacity. Ministers have signed up to the latter but this commitment is all but invisible in emerging biosafety laws. This must be addressed immediately, he said.

As the conference unfolded, I was intrigued by a presentation on the merits of public-private partnerships for drug development. The model has its detractors, but it seems to have significant scope for finding solutions to some of Africa's less well-funded ailments - so-called `neglected diseases'.

With a talk titled `Close, but no CGIAR', Andy Hall from the United Nations University whipped up hefty debate about the funding of agricultural science. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is the largest - and possibly one of the longest-running - single public investments in agriculture research, he said. But in striving for scientific excellence, the initiative is failing to promote innovation to help farmers in, say, Africa to improve their practices.

Indeed, said Hall, investing in R&D is not necessarily the way to go if you want to boost innovation. Research by his team found that market needs far outweigh R&D as a driver for innovation. Science is critical, but one-sided investment will not yield the desired prize.

Standing up for the CGIAR model was Roger Cortbaoui, Director of International Cooperation at the International Potato Centre (CIP) in Lima, Peru. He said that he did not recognise the fear Hall said plagued the CGIAR scientific council of becoming "too developmental". Mugabe, who sat in on the session, joined in the fray but gave neither yay nor nay to Hall's findings. Doubtless the discussion will continue high up in the echelons of science policy.

Hopefully, many of the findings presented at the conference will feed into the agenda-setting for the 2007 summit of African heads of state. The summit will focus on what science can do for Africa's development and is an opportunity to transfer this type of social science into practice. To ensure this, the research must reach African policymakers - not just stay with the funding bodies in the UK, or developed country governments. Making sure the information reaches those who can make a difference - that is the key challenge now.

Click here to contact Linda Nordling, editor of Research Africa.

Click here for more information on Research Africa.