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Kenya plans record science boost

Policy overhaul could see creation of national science fund

Kenyan science could be up for an unprecedented funding boost if new spending plans pass muster in parliament.

The country’s cabinet has approved a bill that would set up a National Research Fund to administer a large pot of money for research. The bill will now pass to the country’s parliament for debate and possible adoption.

The national fund would receive a huge initial input from Treasury, between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of GDP according to current drafts of the bill. This once-off investment would correspond to between US$330 million and US$660 million at 2011 GDP prices—or between two and four times Kenya’s current yearly spend on science and technology.

Subsequent contributions to the fund by the country’s government would be negotiated in parliament.

Donors and other funders would also be able to contribute to the fund, which would be presided over by a five-person board. Donations to the fund would be tax deductible.

Crispus Kiamba, permanent secretary in the ministry of science, agrees the bill as it stands would put pressure on the national budget. But he does not think it is impossible to achieve, and says that the country has no choice if it wants to develop.

“It will be a huge impact on the budget but if we think that science should be taken seriously then this is what we are supposed to do. Science is expensive and needs lots of money,” he says.

The bill also proposes massive reforms in the way that science is administered in Kenya. The National Council of Science and Technology, which is currently a department within the ministry of science, will be upgraded into an autonomous commission.

The National Commission for Science and Technology will advise government on policy, help proposed counties draft science budgets and popularise science.

The bill also proposes the creation of a National Innovation Agency to set up a database of the country’s innovations and establish an award to celebrate scientific innovations in Kenya.

Kiamba hopes that parliamentary negotiations will reach an agreement by the middle of November.

Warm welcome from scientists

Kenyan scientists have welcomed the bill. Eucharia Kenya, a consultant at the Nairobi-based International Centre for Health Interventions and Research in Africa, says it shows the government is listening to scientists, who have lobbied for a funding boost for years.

Kenya has a history of dragging its feet over approving key science laws, says Alfred Kibor, director of research at Egerton University in Nakuru, northwest of Nairobi. But he thinks the ambition is more likely to be realised this time because science is a priority in Vision 2030, the national development programme that was launched in 2008.

It is not clear where the government would find the money to spend on science in its already strained budget. Suggestions for financing include personal tax increases and the introduction of value added tax on technological innovations.

But raising taxes might not be politically acceptable, says Shaukat Abdulrazak, secretary to the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST). “Kenyans are complaining that they are over-taxed already,” he says.

If the bill passes muster in parliament then the funding boost would most likely see Kenya exceed its current science and technology spend, which hovers around 0.5 per cent of GDP.

If Kenya achieves a science spend of 1 per cent of GDP it would be the second country in Africa to do so, after Tunisia. The African Union has recommended that all African countries aspire to spend 1 per cent of GDP on science.