Italy is in the process of sending its first scientific attaché to Sub-Saharan Africa in an attempt to boost research and technology links with what it sees as an economically emerging region.
The Italian government has approved the creation of the new post, and its future holder, Pierguido Sarti, a researcher from Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, hopes to begin work even earlier than the planned September start date.
"There is a real need to start work because there are a lot of things going on and I need to take up this duty as soon as possible," he tells SciDev.Net.
Sarti will split his time between Italy's embassies in Pretoria and Cape Town in South Africa to build research cooperation with the country as well as others in the region.
"The embassy is also responsible for Namibia, Lesotho, Mauritius and another couple of African states," he says. "I'm sure that I will have the opportunity, once I'm there, to understand how to interact with Namibian and other surrounding African countries."
The embassy in Pretoria will be the only Italian embassy in Africa, apart from the one in Egypt, that will have a science attaché, he adds.
As part of the initiative, Italy and South Africa will also fund the exchange of researchers and support scientists wishing to learn about doing research in the two countries.
"We are already investing in the mobility between South African and Italian researchers," Sarti says. The money for this is coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Around 50 grant proposals from Italian researchers are being considered for funding, including those in the fields of radio astronomy, waste, energy, water treatment, advanced mathematics, basic and particle physics, geology and mining.
And South Africa's Department of Science and Technology is considering grant proposals from South Africa's scientists to go to Italy, Sarti says.
Learning from South Africa
Italy hopes to gain from networking with African researchers and increase its chances of drawing on highly competitive research grants from the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme.
"If you look at the statistics, I was impressed by the number of grants South Africa was involved in," Sarti says. Considering its GDP (gross domestic product), it was one of the most active non-European countries in getting research grants from the Horizon 2020's predecessor, the Framework Programme 7, he adds.
"I hope there will be a very active cooperation with South Africans - and that's one of my duties, to ease the cooperation between South Africans and Italians in order to access the grants for Horizon 2020."
He sees South Africa's enthusiastic and active approach to science as making it "one of the best countries to cooperate with".
"The energy that South Africans are putting into scientific investigation is really an example for everyone," he says, adding that the attaché post is about "a mutual exchange of knowledge and attitudes towards doing research".
Italy is part of the consortium that is promoting the development of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a radio astronomy project in South Africa, and the attaché will be following the development of SKA and trying to ensure smooth cooperation between the different institutes in the two countries.
"I have to take care of the connections between Italian science institutes and universities with scientific organisations in South Africa, but also try to promote the industrial relationship with enterprises in South Africa - so it's a double appointment: technology and science," says Sarti.
Apart from learning from Africa, Italy also has an economic interest in investing in research and applied technology there, he says, but this is not the primary task.
"I will not be focused on economic activity, but on technological transfer and science cooperation on a policy level."
Italy operates a network of scientific and technological attachés in about 20 countries around the world, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, India and Israel, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
Most come from Italian research bodies and universities, the website says, and their role is to showcase and capitalise on the sectors of excellence in scientific and technological research and support the advancement of Italian companies operating in advanced technology sectors.