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Obama and Science in Developing Countries

While some fear that the scientific and technical assistance programs to Africa and other developing regions may suffer as a result of the economic downturn, Harvard University's Calestous Juma, an expert on the topic, believes it may have the opposite impact. With the incoming Administration of President-elect Barack Obama promising to devote more resources to developing "green" energy projects and rebuilding infrastructure, Juma says the nation's focus will be more in line with that of most African countries, including his native Kenya—where his hometown near Lake Victoria is not far from the ancestral village of Obama's father. 

Also, Juma says, Obama's new science team—which includes John Holdren, Juma's colleague at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has been named to be the White House science adviser, as well as Harold Varmus of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who will co-chair the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—are all internationally minded and will "think globally."

China is already taking advantage of such shared goals to channel funding and projects into Africa, and Juma believes the United States needs to do the same. Asserting that S&T assistance to the developing world should be measured more in terms of skills imparted rather than dollars spent, Juma says African countries need to do their part by making key structural changes to put more emphasis on research: for example, by bolstering research at universities (most African schools focus entirely on teaching); by encouraging technologically advanced higher education that would keep more talented Africans in their home countries instead of losing them to developed countries; and by creating new colleges with specific focus on technologies of direct importance to their regions, such as telecommunications, agriculture, and mining.

"We need to look for areas of policy convergence," Juma says, "in which the goals of developed countries are more parallel to those of developing countries." Juma, director of Science, Technology and Innovation at the Belfer Center, spoke to a packed auditorium Friday at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.