Researchers’ push for a Presidential Science Advisor timely

By David Njagi

With January’s alert by the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMP) that the country is staring at a dry spell that could last for an unspecified time, the reality that climate change still sways the ability to reach food security status has been brought to the fore.
Yet from lessons learnt during the 2011 drought that affected more than 10 million people in the Horn of Africa – including Kenya – governments will have to invest in feeding its people first before claiming a place in the league of sovereignty.
This is a feat that can be achieved given the vast potential of arable land and a growing pool of research and technologies that have been proved to boost the agrarian system in countries like Zambia.
From a nation that relied on food aid, Zambia has risen from the status of a ‘begging bowl’ nation to cut her niche among African countries that are now key exporters of agriculture produce.
Yet recent trends suggesting that East African countries have been attracting funding for research in areas such as agriculture – staying ahead of the likes of Zambia – is a clear indication that it is not the lack of expertise that ails the region’s ability to pull itself out of hunger.
For instance, a fresh stream of funding that was announced in March 2011 through the Bioresources Innovation Network for Eastern Africa Development (Bio-Innovate), is expected to support East African scientists in research for a period of five years.
This is not the first time a country like Kenya has benefited from such a gesture, which begs the question: Where do we go wrong when it comes to meeting simple basic needs such as food security?
Perhaps it is time that someone listened to a silent lobby that has been rallying for science’s place at the Presidential helm.
Scholars like Prof. Calestous Juma, also director of the science, technology and globalization project at the Harvard University, say a Presidential science advisor would place Kenya on the international map where scientists are serving at national Presidents’ desks as advisors.
In his book, The New Harvest, Agriculture Innovation in Africa, the Harvard scholar notes that by 2010, no African Head of State or government had a scientific advisor, a trend that he links to the slow pace in technology transfer in the agriculture sector.
Details of the book indicate that African countries, including Kenya are failing to advance in agriculture innovation due to the hold that the executive arm of government has on the sector, a trend that he says has traditionally alienated the scientific community in key political decisions.
“Issues related to science, technology and innovation must be addressed in an integrated way at the highest possible levels in government,” says the book. “There is therefore a need to strengthen the capacity of Presidential Offices to integrate science, technology and innovation in all aspects of government.”
According to Juma, establishment of a Presidential science advisor would pave way for the creation of science and innovation desks, which would hopefully boost the functions of the science and technology ministries at the national level.
“At the moment there is no African President who has engaged a science and technology advisor,” says Juma. “It is time the scientific community in Kenya and Africa started reaching out to political leaders to lobby for a vibrant science policy.”
Senior science secretary at the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST), Meru Bjorn Kaburu, says budding scientists would stand to benefit the most from creation of such a position as it would open up a new stream of funding for young innovators.
According to Kaburu, NSCT is currently weighed down by the rising number of young innovators whom it cannot accommodate with a pinball budget of Ksh. 320 million Science and Technology Innovation Fund.
“The establishment of a Presidential science advisor would not only encourage innovation in Kenya but it would also create funding opportunities for budding and women innovators in Kenya,” says Kaburu.
Director at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Ben Chikamai, says Kenya’s next scientific leap is expected from young innovators but this may not be possible if the government continues to confine science to academic institutions.
In a deal approved in January 2010, African researchers practicing in the private sector and non-governmental organizations will for the next five years receive funding from a USD12 million (about Ksh. 1.02 billion) grant donated by the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida).
According to Bioinnovate program manager, Seyoum Leta, support from the fund is expected to benefit scientists from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, to generate research that accelerates East Africa towards a food secure as well a climate change resilient region.
From mid-2011 the second three-year phase will take off and will focus on building agricultural commodity ‘value chains’ in the region and a supporting policy environment for bioresource innovations, says Leta.

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About seventysixthstreet

Science and human rights journalist, Kenya
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