Fragmented science system needs a dedicated ministry

Last month I attended Uganda's national science, technology and innovation (ST&I) dialogue. This is an annual affair that takes stock of developments in ST&I policy-making, involving representatives from the Ugandan science and policy-making communities as well as development experts from overseas.

One of the key issues on the agenda was how to keep up the momentum created by the US$33 million Millennium Science Initiative (MSI), which was funded by a low-interest loan from the World Bank.

But the dialogue threw doubt over the government's commitment to the project.

'Remarkable' results

Since it began in 2006 the MSI has sponsored research projects, trained 31 PhDs and 57 masters students, increased staff at the Ugandan Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) from 40 to 200 and paid for laboratory refurbishments.

The project has passed all the audits and quality tests it has been submitted to with flying colours. According to the World Bank, it is the best project that it has funded in Uganda.

An internal report produced by the bank to convince the government to stick with the project, parts of which I was allowed to see, sets out reasons to sustain the MSI. It says: "While science projects often cannot be expected to result in commercialisable products in the short term, some remarkable results have been achieved."

These developments include a candidate malaria vaccine that has progressed into clinical trials, cassava variants with resistance to brown streak disease, and an assessment of climate variability and environmental degradation of Lake Victoria, which will be useful for managing the lake and its surroundings.

But the funding for the MSI is due to run out at the end of this year, and there are no concrete plans for filling the financial hole this will leave behind.

The World Bank has previously offered to extend the project and is still open to funding another round. The Ugandan government has not taken up the offer, saying it wants to fund science out of its own coffers.

But a spoken commitment by a minister counts for little, according to one official in the finance ministry, who addressed the meeting. The MSI is leaving a void behind it because Uganda's science community has failed to convince the politicians of the importance of science, he said.

This is not entirely correct. In fact, there is solid support for science in Uganda's government – it is just spread out in a way that prevents funding being driven towards the initiatives supported through the MSI.

This fragmentation must be addressed, or the country's entire science system will suffer.

In need of a science ministry

So who champions science in Uganda's government?

President Yoweri Museveni has demonstrated a keen interest – he instigated a science fund in 2006 to support scientists in the country. And Uganda’s 2009 national science strategy and 2011 implementation plan feature broad political support.

In addition, the country's National Agriculture Research Organisation and the UIRI are both well funded. But their funding comes through sector ministries – the agriculture ministry and the ministry of trade and industry respectively – not the ministry of finance.

However, the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), which took the lead in implementing the MSI, does fall under the ministry of finance.

According to insiders, there is disagreement within the ministry as to how much funding should go into the UNCST. This is a key reason why there has been no progress on finding a 'way forward' for the MSI situation, these sources say.

A dedicated ministry of science, which would take over funding for UNCST and act as a champion for science in government budget negotiations, has been on the cards for years. But again, no progress has been made in setting one up.

Streamlining science

There are no indications that a science ministry will come about any time soon, perhaps because of resistance from ministers who value having ST&I activities in their portfolios.

This is a big shame.

The UNCST has with the MSI money created and implemented an excellence-based system for allocating grants to Ugandan scientists. This sets it apart from, for example, the president's science fund, which is managed by the ministry of finance and has been criticised for not being sufficiently transparent in its funding decisions.

It seems that science in Uganda is being pulled in too many different directions, with nobody wanting to hand over control of 'their' patch to the UNCST.

But this is the very organisation that, if Uganda's science funding system is to graduate into something more like that of a developed country's, should be taking charge of allocating more of the country's science budget.

Uganda needs political leadership to ensure that science funding becomes more streamlined. If not, Uganda's 'ST&I glass' will remain half empty, and the country will become a cautionary tale to others wanting to leverage science for development through big externally funded investments.

Rather than starve the UNCST, the country's ministers – and its president – must now let it get on with its purpose. Museveni should set an example and give the UNCST complete control over the presidential support for science.

* This article, “Uganda must streamline its science” by Linda Nordling, was first published on 4 October 2012 by SciDev. It is republished under a Creative Commons licence.