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Shared problems, new technology and better communication all mean innovation is ready to drive development, say Gordon Conway and Jeff Waage.

Science innovation's potential to boost international development has never been greater.

Rich and poor increasingly face shared problems. We are all facing agricultural insecurity, infectious and chronic diseases with global spread, and the challenges of developing a low carbon economy and adapting to climate change.

And while rich and poor will take different paths, common problems will have elements of common solutions, particularly in science and technology.

At the same time, there are more new technologies that can be turned quickly and easily towards the problems of rich or poor alike. Biotechnology, for example, has already delivered improved crops and new vaccines for the rich. And because it harnesses fundamental genetic and molecular processes, it is also easily directed towards the crops and diseases of the poor.

Progress in biotechnology depends less today on marginal advances in knowledge we’ve accumulated about a particular species. Instead, we can quickly understand and study valuable traits in new species by exploiting where their genomes and physiological processes are similar to others.

And new nano-, energy, information and communication technologies are much more flexible than earlier engineering technologies, because they rely less on established infrastructures and big industry.

Rapid growth in information and communication technology is also making it easier for all countries to participate in science innovation — and to engage stakeholders and beneficiaries in this process, across historical boundaries of developed and developing countries.

Priorities for progress

Shared challenges, shareable technologies and improved opportunities for communication and collaboration — all very recent trends — greatly improve science innovation’s chances of driving effective development.

But what actions will best secure these new opportunities and accelerate development? From our combined 80 years working in international development, we suggest five priority actions for governments in both developed and developing countries.

Empowerment

First, is empowering scientists everywhere to work on science innovation for development. The top priority here is to invest in science in developing countries. This means building good science training into schools, supporting universities to develop undergraduate and postgraduate science programmes, and helping both universities and government research institutions provide attractive career paths for bright scientists.

Development institutions that fund science must move away from doling out short-term research grants to individuals and start funding national research grant systems that allow local institutions to drive longer term research programmes.

Systems

Second, is strengthening science innovation systems in developing countries. These are needed to bring together scientists, entrepreneurs, regulators and other stakeholders to support and deliver research and its benefits.

At the same time, we must help scientists from developing countries participate in global innovation systems through South-North and South-South research collaborations. These partnerships must become more equitable and empowering for developing country scientists, supporting their careers in national institutions by providing opportunities for longer term research, publications and for building research groups.

Accessibility


Third, is ensuring that new technologies are accessible to science for development. This requires continuous and sufficient research into international public goods (IPGs).

This means governments and donors must support research institutions that focus on developing country problems so as to generate IPGs, such as plant genomes. But it also means making imaginative partnerships with the private sector to make proprietary technologies available to research for development.

Results-based

Fourth, research must be designed and delivered for impact. This means building research and development frameworks that are based on results, and which ensure that scientific research outputs and outcomes will effectively reduce poverty and improve well-being. It also means asking stakeholders to help frame research questions, so that they are prepared to get involved in executing, applying and scaling up research outputs and outcomes.

This approach will encourage the development of appropriate technologies, drawing on international and local knowledge and conventional and new platform science.

Profile-raising

Finally, the profile of science needs raising within developing country governments. Policymakers should be helped to understand how investing in science innovation systems can serve their country's poverty reduction and economic growth agendas.

This includes demonstrating how supporting science education and research helps society, and how independent scientific societies and advisory groups can help governments make more informed national and international policy decisions.

These five priority actions would help science innovation boost international development. Of course, there are other factors that may make or break progress, including good governance, infrastructure, economic growth and peace. Science may not provide wholesale solutions for development but it can — and should — make valuable contributions to them.

Gordon Conway is professor of international development at Imperial College London, United Kingdom.

Jeff Waage is director of the London International Development Centre and professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, United Kingdom.

This opinion is based on the conclusions of the authors' new book
Science and Innovation for Development published by the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences in January 2010.

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