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Ugandan elections deal blow to science-supporting MPs

Many of Uganda's most science-supportive parliamentarians lost their positions in last month's general election (18 February).

Ten MPs, all scientists by training, lost their seats. They had been instrumental in influencing policy and financial appropriations for scientific research, the development of laboratories, and capacity-building in health, agriculture, the environment, industry and information and communication technology.

Some of the MPs were part of the MP–scientist pairing scheme, supported by the UK's Royal Society and the UK Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, and managed by the Uganda National Academy of Sciences.

Entomologist Maurice Ogenga Latigo — until then chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology — and Charles Ngabirano, a pioneer member of Uganda's first National Biosafety Committee, were among the big casualties in the election, which saw the re-instatement of long-time president Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement party. Museveni has been in power for the last 25 years.

"This is a major loss for [Uganda's science development]," said Julius Ecuru, assistant executive secretary at the Uganda National Council for Science and Development.

"From the outgoing parliament we received approval of the US$30 million Millennium Science Initiative [funded by the World Bank to support the country's science development] in 2007, and two new policies — Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) and National Biotechnology and Biosafety — were approved in 2008.

"In 2009 we got STI mainstreamed in the new, ten-year National Development Plan as well as having STI issues identified in the last two national budgets (2008–9 and 2009–10) as key areas for additional funding," he said.

But the academy's executive secretary, Paul Nampala, said the losses have not wrong-footed them. "We maintain that it's the duty of us scientists and our sympathisers to lobby any MP to take up our interests," he said.

Many MPs, Nampala said, were paired with scientists to create a better understanding of scientific and technological issues among parliamentarians — and new ones will be recruited and paired.

Arthur Makara, chief executive officer of Uganda's Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, said that new MPs should be courted early enough to develop much better ambassadors, both in numbers and quality, in the legislature.

Charles Mugoya, programme manager for agrobiodiversity and biotechnology at the Uganda-based Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA), told SciDev.Net: "The trend is almost the same across the region — the parliaments have few scientists. Uganda's partners in ASARECA, or indeed the East African Community, are not much better off in terms of having MPs who are scientists."

He said that, while having many scientists as MPs is an added advantage for any country, the most important issue was for governments to have a clear understanding of the powerful role science and technology can play in propelling societies to greater heights.

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