Nurturing Third World brains in the new year

Last year began with high hopes—after two decades of neglect—of new, high-level political recognition of the importance of science and technology to development. In addition, certain events dominating the headlines reinforced the message.

Most dramatic was the Indian Ocean tsunami.
This revealed the need for enhanced disaster prediction and more sustainable development. In both, science and technology have a key role to play.

But if there has been significant progress in some individual areas, progress in changing broader attitudes has been slow.

It is essential that those demanding political recognition of such needs maintain their demands in 2006. It is also important that the calls are informed by political realism—and this means evidence, not wishful thinking.

The picture is certainly far from gloomy. If the scientific and technological needs of Africa failed to generate backing from the industrialised world, there were promising signs from within the developing world itself.

In Africa, the list of individual countries prepared to identify science and technology as a political priority—and to make a public commitment to this effect—is growing steadily. So is the number of governments that accept that science policies must be linked to broader development strategies.

But drawing up a list of good intentions is only the first step. More difficult is persuading those holding the purse strings (which means finance ministers rather than science ministers) that investing in science and technology capacity should be given a higher priority relative to initiatives offering more immediate political rewards.

The dangers of protectionism

The problem is not restricted to the developing world. One of the biggest promises made by United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair when he took over the six-month presidency of the European Union in July last year was that he wanted to use the opportunity to shift European funding away from subsidising food production and into investment in research and development.

To a large extent, these efforts failed. This was not because they were wrongly directed. Rather, the political momentum behind them was insufficient to overcome the protectionist traditions of European farmers.

The same was true of the latest session of the so-called Doha round of world trade negotiations that took place in Hong Kong shortly before the end of 2005. Again there had been promises—intended largely to address frustrations generated by negotiations two years earlier in Cancun, Mexico—that this would be a “development round”.

Yet again, efforts to place a significantly greater emphasis on the use of aid to build economic capacity in developing countries were derailed by supporters of protectionist policies from industrialised nations.

The tasks ahead

This does not mean that all protectionism is bad. A heavily researched paper published last summer by the development organisation Christian Aid ruffled feathers in the economics community by making a powerful case for a limited amount of protectionism in developing countries as they take their first tentative steps towards building a knowledge economy.

The relevant part of the argument here is that the ability to participate effectively and successfully in an open global economy increasingly requires a level of scientific and technological capacity—but that protectionist measures can contribute to building this capacity (as both India and China have shown) in ways that can outweigh the purely economic argument in favour of open markets.

This is the case that must be made in the years ahead. The positive lessons of 2005 are that the intellectual argument about the role of science and technology in meeting the needs of developing countries has largely been won.

The less positive lesson is that ensuring that it is incorporated into mainstream public policy remains a major challenge.

This is a political task, as it involves shifting priorities in a way that will inevitably mean there will be losers as well as winners. The European discussion has highlighted how more money for scientists can mean less for powerful political constituencies such as farmers, generating opposition.

Making a solid case for more investment in scientific and technological capacity can also be seen as a task for science communication. After all, to become politically acceptable, the case for such investment must also become acceptable to those who vote politicians into power.

Which means demonstrating that it is in their own interests, even if this is in the long-term.

The year 2005 may not have seen the challenge met effectively. But at least it has been thrown down. Hopefully 2006 will see it picked up and answered in a more concrete fashion. SciDev.Net

David Dickson is the London-based director of the global specialist news agency the Science and Development Network, where his article also contains links to the Christian Aid report, The Economics of Failure: The Real Cost of ‘Free’ Trade

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