Put science at center of decision-making on third world development, experts tell UN

01/02/05

Report urges end to monopoly of economists as development policy advisors

Science and technology is so critically important to improving conditions in poor countries that scientific advisors should join economists at the center of government policy-making on development issues, an eminent group of 27 international experts says in a landmark report to the United Nations.

"Economic advice will always be important in guiding policy makers on development matters. But in a knowledge-based economy, leaders and governments increasingly need science advisors to make effective use of emerging technologies," says the report co-author, Calestous Juma of Harvard University. "In a world marked by rapid technological change and the enormous, emerging opportunities presented by biotechnologies and nanotechnologies, science advisors will soon be a necessary part of every presidential and executive office, including the Office of the UN Secretary-General."

The report, "Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development," was prepared by the Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation of the UN Millennium Project, commissioned by the UN Secretary General to advise on implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Agreed by world leaders in 2000, the MDGs are clear, quantifiable targets to be achieved by 2015. The full Millennium Project will report later in January on strategies to reach all MDGs, including reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women.

Three years in preparation, the report of the Task Force (a 19-member group, with an additional eight-member working group on genomics and nanotechnology based at the University of Toronto), says science, technology and innovation have helped to largely eliminate poverty and hunger and driven remarkable economic growth in much of Southeast Asia and the Asian Pacific.

Yet the potential role of science and technology to help solve poverty and hunger in other developing regions, most notably in Africa, is under appreciated.

Many in developing countries consider science and technology irrelevant to immediate needs or have a misguided apprehension that S&T will cause a loss of jobs, says Dr. Juma, a specialist in international development at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The report recommends that countries:

1) Create and improve science and technology advisory institutions at the national and international levels;
2) Employ institutions of higher learning such as universities directly in the service of community development;
3) Strengthen national programs designed to promote business development;
4) Design infrastructure projects as a way to promote technological innovation.

Says Dr. Lee Yee-Cheong, fellow co-ordinator of the report and president of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations: "The three great waves of technology information and communication technology, genomics and biotechnology, and nanotechnology must increasingly be mastered by the developing world for social and economic gain. If knowledge is power, technology is key to development."

"Critics say the first priority is better basic health care," says Dr. Peter Singer, MD, Director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics, and chair of the Genomics and Nanotechnology Working Group. "Certainly a comprehensive approach to malaria, for example, requires better public health (in the form of education, bed nets and better access to existing drugs), but it will also require better science and technology (for example, better diagnostic tests, new drugs to combat resistance, and, ultimately, a vaccine)."

The working group identified 10 biotech breakthroughs deemed most important for improving health in developing countries within the decade (see http://www.utoronto.ca/jcb/home/news_genomics.htm). Topping the list: new medical tools that quickly and accurately diagnose diseases like AIDS and malaria.

"The report does not tell countries how to implement these measures but instead offers a wide variety of 'lessons learned' to illustrate how developing and developed countries have used science, technology, and innovation to achieve their development goals," says Dr. Juma.

Among many examples cited:

Engineers from the Uruguayan public water utility developed a small, low-cost community water treatment systems for its soldiers doing peacekeeping duties in Africa in the mid 1990s. The Autonomous Potable Water Unit (APWU) is six meters long and can be put into operation in 24 hours. More than 120 units have been installed in Uruguay, where the device has reduced waterborne diseases, especially cholera. Units were given to Nicaragua and El Salvador after Hurricane Mitch. India has shown interest in purchasing the technology as has Hungary, South Africa and Brazil.

"Wide and varied technological expertise is essential for developing countries in a global economy that features rapid spread of information and other new technologies, the shrinking of economic distance, and where more and more industrial processes require knowledge workers," he said.

The Rwandan government recognized the importance of technology in development when it converted military barracks into a home for a new university, the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management (KIST). Created out of the ashes of the genocide with the help of UNDP and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, KIST held it's first graduations in 2002, awarding diplomas and degrees in computer sciences, engineering and management.

However to be effective science, technology, and innovation must be at the center of the development process. They must become the core of industrial, agricultural, and services policies, and create explicit links between market and non-market institutions.

Malaysia's transformation from a supplier of raw materials to a diversified economy that exports electronic products and technology services is the result of putting science at the center of development. In the 1980s Malaysia created the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM),

To serve national development objectives. ASM works closely with the Science Advisor's Office in providing advice to the Office of the Prime Minister. The Ministry of Science and Technology and Innovation and other ministries seek ASM's advice regularly. Nigeria and South Africa have adopted the ASM model of a substantial launching grant from the government of $5 million to assure their respective academies' financial well being and maintain a full-time professional staff. Zimbabwe and Tunisia also intend to integrate scientists and engineers in their proposed academies.

While the report highlights the importance of higher education, it also notes more than 370 million of the world's 1.3 billion school age children (28 percent) are not in school. The problem of poor schooling and lack of schooling is unlikely to improve without major interventions. An additional 1535 million educated and trained teachers will be needed over the next decade if all countries are to achieve the Goal of universal primary education by 2015.

Starting this year the African Virtual University (AVU) will use the Internet to help train new teachers through distance learning. Headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, the AVU has established 31 learning centers in 17 African countries. More than 23,000 people have been trained in journalism, business studies, computer science, languages, and accounting since it's creation with the help of the World Bank in 1997.

Most importantly, enrollment of women was (more than 40 percent), a result of the flexibility offered by distance learning. The AVU model could be adopted at the national level, linking national universities and possibly helping universities offer training to neighboring pre university schools.

Even where there are strong research institutes and laboratories in developing countries, they often do not have strong links with business and industry. Thus scaling up from laboratory findings to industrial output becomes difficult or fails to happen. There is no easy solution to this problem, except to create opportunities for R&D laboratories in the public domain to work with private industry.

In Taiwan (China) more than 30 R&D consortia have been formed to foster cooperation between various laboratories in the government funded Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and local small and medium size enterprises to transfer technologies and develop innovative processes and products. These efforts have led to the production of laptop computers, high definition televisions, videophones, laser faxes, broadband communications, digital switching devices, satellite receiving stations, and smart cards.

"Now is the time to plant the seeds of change in education, government and the private sector that can begin moving developing countries forward," says Dr. Juma.

He adds that some governments around the world are already acting. Canada has created the office of the National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and committed 5% of Canada's R&D spending to developing world challenges, especially health, environment and learning technologies; the Irish government has appointed a Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister; the government in Jamaica has devised a formal program aimed at boosting student interest in science and technology; and India has announced plans to set up a scientific advisory council to advise the Prime Minister.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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