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  • 2004: time for the 're-globalisation' of science


The last year brought many reminders of the limitations of global approaches to social issues. The task ahead is to modify such strategiesand find ways of incorporating science appropriately into them.

For a long period, the internationalism of politics has been seen as holding the key to peace and prosperity. This has certainly been true of support for the United Nations following the Second World War. It has also been true for a broad set of global agreements on issues ranging from weapons control to international trade. In each case, the consensus has been that a commitment to global goals can contain the tensions and conflicts generated by purely national or regional agendas. 

To a large extent this approach has been successful. There is no question that the world is a more stable and peaceful place than it would be without the existence of the United Nations and its specialist agencies. Yet 2003 demonstrated vividly, in a number of instances, that globalisation has its limits. Perhaps the most graphic example was the invasion of Iraq, which showed that it is still possible for superstates to take military action without the endorsement of — or even being sanctioned by — the global political community.

This experience, however, was not unique. In a growing number of instances it is becoming clear that a 'one size fits all' approach to issues is not necessarily the most appropriate, particularly when it comes to meeting the needs of developing countries. Take intellectual property rights. A system that has proved so effective in promoting the economic growth of the industrialised world is increasingly seen as needing significant modification when applied to countries struggling to gain a foothold in the knowledge economy.

One of the characteristics that marked the past year, therefore, has been awareness of the many ways in which ideas about globalisation that dominated the political scene in the second half of the 20th century need to be revised. The challenge is not to find a replacement. Rather it is to forge a new form of globalisation that can encompass the many benefits that a global approach to problems can bring with an appropriate sensitivity to national and regional needs, particularly those experienced by the developing world.

A new role for science 

Science is at the centre of many of these debates. By both its universal nature, and its ability to transcend national boundaries, the practice of modern science has appeared to offer a template of globalisation at its best. There are, indeed, many instances where this philosophy has been successfully put into practice by the scientific community. These range from the central involvement of scientists in weapons limitation negotiations in the interests of securing 'world peace', to their insistence that science should feature prominently in a body that was originally to have been called the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation — i.e. UNECO rather than UNESCO. 

Furthermore, the ability of scientific knowledge to help forge a consensus on contentious issues has been critical in laying the groundwork for much necessary global diplomacy, particularly in the environmental field. Scientists have not always been the first to highlight threats to the natural environment from human activities. But, in areas ranging from ozone depletion to global warming, their evidence-based conclusions have often placed such issues on the political agenda in a way that cannot be ignored.

But here, too, globalisation has its limits. There is already growing recognition that, while science as it is carried out in rich countries has been able to rely on market mechanisms for its effective functioning– whether to deliver its products, or even ensure its own internal functioning – this cannot be taken for granted in the poorer regions of the world. Hence, for example, growing interest in alternative strategies, such as differential pricing for pharmaceuticals, or open access to scientific publications.

Or take the example of genetically modified (GM) crops. There are many who argue that, just as scientific consensus has been at the core of both global and national actions to curb global warming, so a similar science-based approach is needed as the foundation of all policies on the regulation of GM agriculture and food production. Indeed, several initiatives have been launched on precisely this premise (see GM crops and the limits of consensus politics).

Others, however, point out that the nature of both the scientific knowledge, and the political decisions involved, is very different in these two cases. In the case of combating potentially dangerous climate change, a global strategy is entirely appropriate, even if this subsequently needs translating into national and regional actions. In contrast, decisions on GM crops — as last week's discussion paper from Britain's Nuffield Council on Bioethics points out — require a local social and economic assessment of the benefits and costs of alternative courses of action (see GM decisions 'must examine all options', says report). 

Within such an assessment, scientific knowledge obviously has a central role to play. But it is not a determinant one. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of much development policy over the past 50 years has been to ignore this difference, pretending that the application of modern science and technology is not only necessary, but sufficient, to ensure social and economic progress. And one of the tasks ahead is to redefine the role of science in development policy in a way that does not fall into this trap (or provoke the backlash against science-based development strategies that such hubris has often prompted when the strategies fail to deliver on their promises).

SciDev.Net in 2004 

SciDev.Net is committed to playing its part in this transformation. As indicated last year, we are coming to the end of our initial two-year launch phase, and are now — based on the positive response we have received to our efforts so far, and thanks to the continued support of our donors — about to embark on what we hope will be a five-year period of consolidation.

During this period, we will remain committed to putting into practice our original goals and convictions. The most important of these is that a web-based source of readable and authoritative news, views and information on science and technology related issues has an important role to play in helping to achieve the success of a wide range of development strategies. We also acknowledge the need to embed our activities in local practices and perspectives, whether through the work of our regional correspondents and networks, or capacity building workshops such as those organised last year with UNESCO in Kampala and Chennai on communicating the science of HIV/AIDS.

In practical terms, our plans for next year could be described as "more of the same". We will be expanding the news coverage of our website, adding new dossiers (for example on biodiversity, and research and development policy) and quick guides (for example on genomics and nanotechnology), and launching a special section devoted to the practice of science communication. In addition, we will be expanding our regional networks with the launch of a new network covering South Asia, and the preparation of similar initiatives covering East and South East Asia, and the Middle East. And we have plans for further workshops, both on particular scientific topics, and more generally on science communication skills.

In all of these activities, we will continue to rely heavily — as we have been doing up to now — on the support of those who use the website. We are pleased to say that the number of registered users is continuing to grow steadily, increasing by two-thirds from 5,000 at the beginning of 2003 to more than 8,300 at the end. And we were particularly delighted at the response to our anniversary appeal to existing registrants to persuade friends and colleagues to sign up, which produced our largest-ever increase of more than 580 registrants in one month alone.

We hope that we can continue to rely on your support in the year ahead. At the same time, we remain open to your comments on our activities, and your suggestions about how we can improve the service that we provide. Even more important, our pages remain open to all those who have ideas about how to build science and technology into sustainable development policies in a way that draws on the benefits of globalisation while fully recognising — and compensating for — its many limitations.

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