High bar. The World Bank's Hippolyte Fofack agrees that financing AIST "is a big challenge."

New Hope for African Science

A group of African scientists, engineers, and educators will gather this weekend in Ajuba, Nigeria, to announce plans to transform education and research in sub-Saharan Africa. Their goal is a network of four regional universities that will train 5000 scientists and engineers a year and provide world-class research facilities. And they are looking for big money to bankroll the plans--an endowment of $500 million by 2007 for the first institute and up to $5 billion to support all four.

The case for strengthening sub-Saharan Africa's tertiary education and research efforts is easy to make. The region has only 83 scientists and engineers per million residents, one-fifth of the ratio for North Africa and one-sixth that for all developing countries. Research spending as a share of gross domestic product has actually declined since 1970, to a scant 0.47%, while spending in East Asia has quadrupled, to 1.27%, over the same period.

Plans call for the African Institute of Science and Technology (AIST) to encompass four universities in east, west, central, and south sub-Saharan Africa. The curriculum, including undergraduate and graduate programs, will emphasize solving practical problems, and degrees will be offered in science, engineering, economics, and management. Organizers hope to lure back some of the estimated 30,000 African Ph.D.s now working abroad by offering generous salaries and first-class facilities.

An even bigger challenge will be finding good jobs for graduates, says Mohammed Hassan, executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences and a member of the institute's advisory committee. "Otherwise, we'll be repeating the cycle of having talented scientists and engineers just fly away," he says.

South African icon Nelson Mandela has agreed to chair the first AIST board of directors, and the Nelson Mandela Institution for Knowledge Building will manage the endowment. Hippolyte Fofack, a World Bank senior economist involved in AIST planning, has amassed a long list of ministers who also support the initiative and AIST's planners hope that governments will back up their words with financial support. "Politicians talk a lot about the importance of science and engineering," says Hassan. "This will be a real test of their commitment."

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