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  • Can Africa pioneer a new way of doing science?


Those keen to build a greater scientific capacity in Africa must not fall into the trap of encouraging outdated views on how science should be practiced.

If all goes well, the next few months will see a groundswell of political support for the idea that science and technology should be given a key role to play in the alleviation of poverty on the African continent. Already this idea is gaining currency in development circles. Two weeks ago, for example, the secretary-general of the United Nations received a report emphasising that greater investment in science and technology is essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (see Science advice 'essential' to meet development goals).

Similarly the World Bank has launched a new initiative designed to put all its assistance programmes through what its president James Wolfensohn describes as "the lens of science and technology". This initiative will place a particular emphasis on looking at how lessons drawn from the role of science and technology in promoting social and economic development in Asia can now be applied to the African continent (see World Bank puts science back on the agenda). And similar issues will be high on the agenda next week at a seminar in London organised jointly by the Canadian and British governments, being held under the title 'Building science and technology capacity with African partners'.

All this is good news; all too often in recent years, as we have frequently argued, the potential contribution of science and technology to development has, for a variety of reasons, been underplayed within aid policies. But enthusiasm for this change of heart needs to be tempered. It is essential that the type of initiatives and practices being promoted are genuinely responsive to the needs and resources of African states; conversely, steps must to be taken to avoid supporting out-dated practices that are in the process of being abandoned elsewhere.

To put it at its simplest, science and technology must not be seen by policy-makers as determinants of development, in the sense of encouraging the idea greater investment in science and technology will somehow lead automatically to social and economic progress (epitomised in the concept of the 'magic bullet'). Rather, both must be seen, as Keith Bezanson and Geoff Oldham argued in this editorial column two weeks ago, as components of broader 'systems of innovation', in which other elements, ranging from intellectual property laws to strengthened university-industry links, have just as essential a role to play (see Rethinking science aid).

But Africa needs to go further. The concept of a 'system of innovation' most not be conceived or planned in a narrow, technocratic manner. Rather, it must embrace significant social dimensions. This must ensure, for example, that research and development programmes take full account of local priorities, resources, and capacity-building needs, and that the outcomes of these programmes reach the poorest levels of the community. Left on their own, the market forces that have dominated the evolution of systems of innovation in the industrialised nations will not achieve these objectives. More imaginative approaches, embracing both private and public initiatives, are essential if Africa's principal goal — the eradication of poverty — is to be achieved.

A new paradigm?

Such a strategy is likely to bear many of the characteristics of what some sociologists and historians of science have described as 'mode 2' science. Their goal has been to characterise a new approach that has emerged in industrialised countries in recent years to the way that science is practiced.

'Mode 1' science is seen as that being based on a linear model linking science to society and to the economy. Within this model, research priorities are determined primarily by the scientific community, and research is carried out in universities and other institutions that are largely insulated from the surrounding society (hence being referred to as 'ivory towers'). It is only once research has been successfully completed that its results can be transferred to the private sector, which takes on the tasks of turning them into useful products.

This is the model on which most of the scientific infrastructure of the industrialised world, ranging from the funding of research programmes to the structure of training and reward systems, has been developed. At its heart is a concept of scientific excellence, based on recognition of merit and originality by scientific peers. And a sharp distinction has been maintained between pure and applied research, seen as different points along a linear spectrum.

Over the past three decades, however, many students of science now argue that this 'mode 1' science has been gradually replaced by a very different one. The new approach sees science as part of an innovation system that contains many feedback loops and opportunities for interaction with the broader society. These, for example, ensure that scientific priorities are selected according to social and economic priorities (for example, through the use of 'technology foresight' exercise to determine the allocation of research resources).

The new paradigm does not see science as an end in itself, but places every aspect of science in a social context. Research institutions, programmes and training are all designed accordingly. Scientists' work is valued not only for its intellectual merit, but also for its potential contribution to society's social and economic needs (for example, in the number of patents it has stimulated). And the process of priority setting has become a public dialogue between scientists and broader community.

It does not take much imagination to see that this new, 'mode 2' science, is the one that best fits the needs of Africa (indeed of most developing nations). The science required as a central component of development strategy is one that is built not around intellectual curiosity (essential though this is), but around social need. Research priorities must not be determined by the likely number of publications in academic journals, but by their relevance to this need. And publication rates should not become the principal determinant of professional success in the academic world, even if they continue to play an important part.

The African dilemma

Sadly, too much of what little science there is in Africa is still carried out within the first, 'mode 1', paradigm. Many countries lack the funding to implement national science strategies (relying almost entirely on project funding from outside agencies). Those that still exist can be dominated by outdated conceptions of scientific excellence and success. Some university curricula are still structured around the traditional disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, rather than the multidisciplinary approachs increasingly favoured in developed nations. Research funding and scientific promotion is distributed by small panels of scientists, often using 'old boy' networks rather than critical scrutiny. And there is too little interaction between universities and research institutions, and the world on their doorstep.

There are many reasons for this. One is that research structures can remain fossilised in the forms that were left behind by colonialism. In most developed countries, a range of political and economic pressures — including the desire to link the research community directly to the task of securing economic growth — have driven through a shift from 'mode 1' to 'mode 2' science (often, admittedly, in the face of bitter opposition from the scientific community).

In the developed world, however, there has been little pressure for structural reform of the science base (while the general lack of funding has meant that, even where this pressure exists, there may not be funds available to implement the necessary changes, for example in reconstructing funding committees).

The result is that many institutions remain little more than the shells of those that were set up by colonial powers at a time when 'mode 1' was the dominant way of thinking. Outdated training practices and patronage systems remain intact. And scientists have been able to resist pressure to make their work relevant to social needs, using the argument (inherited from colonialist predecessors) that academic excellence is the only criterion that really counts.

All too often, those from the developed world who seek to boost science in the poorer parts of the world, are tempted do so in ways that encourage such forms of thinking. The idea they present is that, since science and technology are seen as the driving motors of both social and economic progress, both should be nurtured in the way that they are — or rather, have traditionally been — in those countries that have trodden this path successfully in the past.

But this approach pays insufficient attention to several factors that make African states today different from those of, say, Europe, or even East Asia, in the twentieth century. One is the way that globalisation has transformed the whole international research enterprise. A second is the evolution that has taken place within science itself, so that the boundaries between pure and applied research (for example in fields such as genomics or nanotechnology) are now virtually non-existent. And a third is the fact that since the spending power of those most in need of the fruits of modern science and technology is virtually negligible, market forces cannot be relied upon to exert the 'pull through' from the laboratory that they have done elsewhere.

The political challenge

None of these factors are unfamiliar to those who have been looking recently at the way forward for Africa. Taken together, however, they imply that two goals — not one — need to be on the table over the next few months.

The first is to secure the commitment of senior politicians in the developed and developing world alike to the idea that Africa will only develop — which means in practice that poverty will only be eradicated, economic growth will only be achieved, and the Millennium Development Goals will only be met — if greater attention is and support is given to the role of science and technology in each of these processes.

The second, equally important, is to build this commitment around new ways of thinking about science. At the core of these needs to be imaginative approaches for placing the need for poverty alleviation — not scientific progress — at the heart of research policy, with all the novel policy and institutional linkages that this implies.

Of course, describing this as a 'paradigm shift' is a bit of an exaggeration. There have always been ways in which those engaged in 'science for development' have been looking beyond purely intellectual horizons. Conversely, scientific excellence and intellectual imagination must remain key components of the new system, and rewarded as such (even if these means expanding concepts of excellence); there is no point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The value of thinking in terms of a paradigm shift, however, is that the new model (whether or not it is characterised as 'mode 2') has an invaluable role to play as a yardstick against which new policies can be measured in political terms, whether short-, medium- or long-term. In practice, this means that the more that policy proposals appear to reinforce traditional, 'mode 1' ways of thinking, the more they should be viewed with scepticism by political decision-makers and donor agencies alike. And the more that proposed initiatives pioneer 'mode 2' practices, with social inclusion and poverty alleviation at their core, the more enthusiastically they should be embraced.

Click here for summary and discussion of the concept of 'mode 2' science 

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