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As this year's president of the G8, Japan has an opportunity to boost international support for science and technology in development.

Japan has an enviable international reputation in many areas, from producing quality goods to hosting one of the world's most important meetings on climate change in Kyoto in 1993. But effective aid to developing countries is not among them.

On paper, the figures look impressive enough. Japan's foreign aid budget, although falling in recent years, remains one of the largest in the world. But Japan is often criticised for focusing help on its immediate neighbours, using its money unimaginatively, and spending too much on lucrative contracts for its own construction and supply companies.

As this year's president of the G8 group of the world's leading industrialised nations, and as host of the G8 summit in Hokkaido this summer, Japan has a unique opportunity to correct this image. Already it has indicated its desire to see assistance to Africa as a top priority at the summit.

The meeting will also offer Japan the chance to put some political muscle behind previous summit commitments — not always vigorously pursued — to enhance the role of science and technology within international aid policies.

A position of strength

In highlighting the importance of science and technology in development, Japan will have its own experience to draw on. The country's success in rebuilding its economy after the Second World War is a textbook example of the power of technological innovation to stimulate social development that many developing countries would love to emulate.

Japan already makes some efforts to help them to do so. Its aid programmes contain several practical achievements, including assistance for science and mathematics education in some African countries, backing for science policy studies in others and generous support for international agricultural research centres.

But much more could be done, as the country's own scientific community has acknowledged. In a report published last April, Japan's Council for Science and Technology Policy argues that "Japan should change its traditional mindset, and place a new emphasis on making use of the country's superior strengths in science and technology to take the initiative in resolving worldwide issues that face the human race".1

Opportunities at the next G8 meeting

Preparations for the G8 meeting will indicate how far the Japanese government is prepared to endorse this position. There will be opportunities for it to make a difference: for example, Japan will host the first formal meeting of G8 science ministers shortly before the Hokkaido summit.

Last month it announced that this meeting will have two main agenda items. The first is to look at scientific cooperation between G8 countries. The second will explicitly address capacity development in developing countries, as well as cooperation through, for example, joint research and knowledge transfer.

As Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chief scientific adviser to the cabinet, has written, "The G8 summit will provide a major test for both the government and the scientific community of Japan to exercise leadership in this challenging, globalising world."2

But there are grounds for concern that the importance of science and technology in development — particularly the need to go beyond piecemeal support for individual projects to address such fundamental issues as capacity building in research and development — still requires greater acknowledgement in Tokyo.

Lesson from a past summit

Next May sees the Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), a meeting that is expected to set the agenda for addressing Africa's needs at the G8 summit the following month.

It will include discussion of topics ranging from infectious diseases to global warming, which call for significant scientific input. But, despite encouragement from scientists in some other G8 countries, no session will be devoted to science and technology as such.

It will be regrettable if this unrecognised need for a strategic commitment to support science and technology in developing countries is repeated at the G8 meeting itself.

This is what happened three years ago, at the Gleneagles summit in Scotland: attempts to introduce into the final communique a quantified commitment to building scientific capacity — based on the recommendations of the Commission for Africa set up by the then British prime minister Tony Blair — were apparently watered down after opposition from the United States.

Implementing solutions

A firm stand by Japan on this issue, drawing on any recommendations that emerge from the TICAD meeting, could make up for what happened in Gleneagles. And it would be helpful if, before then, the government were to adopt a recommendation in the science council's report that it should strengthen its own internal arrangements for delivering on such a commitment.

This could be done, for example, by giving support for capacity building in science and technology a higher profile within the Japan International Cooperation Agency. This — as Kurokawa points out — could in turn be made easier by drawing public attention, both domestically and internationally, to the importance of this field and the considerable contribution that Japan has already made.

Fewer countries are better placed than Japan to show the developing world how to exploit the promise of science and technology — or, in light of its experience of atomic weapons during the Second World War — to stimulate debate on how to avoid any potentially negative social and environmental impacts.

As president of the G8, Japan now has a unique opportunity to exert a strong influence over international activity in this arena. It is to be hoped that it will grasp this opportunity with enthusiasm and commitment.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

References

1. Dr. Aizawa, M. Toward the Reinforcement of Science and Technology Diplomacy. Available at http://www8.cao.go.jp/cstp/english/policy/stdiplomacy.pdf [20kB](24 April 2007)

2. Kurokawa, K. Challenges for Japan's Scientific Community in the 2008 G8 Summit. Available at: http://www.jiia.or.jp/en_commentary/200706/19-1.html (19 June 2007)

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