Many developing nations could see dramatic development if they funded research infrastructure, argues David Dickson.
Few would name Ireland as one of the world's largest computer software exporters. Yet it has been this since the late 1990s, partly as a result of investing a significant slice of the development assistance it receives from the EC (European Commission) in the infrastructure required to become a knowledge economy.
This assistance has come through the 'structural funds' provided to the poorer parts of the EU (European Union). Countries such as Greece have invested most of the money received this way in more conventional construction projects, for example roads and airports.
In contrast, Ireland has used much of it to build such things as research facilities and high-speed data networks.
There is no reason why developing nations, particularly in Africa, should not replicate Ireland's experience. Appropriate investment in research and innovation infrastructure can help them jump from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial society.
But to achieve this, two things must happen. National governments must genuinely prioritise innovation support. And development agencies must accept that investment in research and innovation infrastructure is as important as funding more traditional infrastructure projects, such as energy and transport systems.
The case for investment
The case for investing in research infrastructure was laid out clearly at a conference in Brussels this month, organised as the culminating event of an EC-funded project known as Promoting African-European Research Infrastructure Partnerships (PAERIP).
A succession of speakers emphasised that, for the funding of science for development to have a long-term impact, it needs to go beyond solely supporting individual research projects and programmes or even training a new generation of researchers to also include investment in the infrastructure, including large-scale research facilities and related databanks, that makes research possible.
The creation of research infrastructure can also drive socioeconomic development itself. Side benefits can range from initial construction contracts to the creation of technical jobs and high-quality communication networks.
As the concluding statement from a PAERIP meeting in Ghana last December put it, "research infrastructures are key determinants of competitiveness and development".
There are, inevitably, political challenges. One is that investing in research infrastructure generates little political capital with voters, particularly where it is unlikely to bring short-term benefits for society and the long-term benefits are hard to explain.
A minister in a developing country will win more votes by being photographed opening a school or energy project, whose benefits are obvious, than in launching a gene databank.
Here science journalists can help by covering such events — including the construction of new telescopes such as the planned Square Kilometre Array — in a way that emphasises both their scientific value and the way that the knowledge they will produce will address pressing social issues.
Another problem is that past investment in research infrastructure has a chequered track record.
Africa, in particular, is littered with the carcasses of previous initiatives, such as empty laboratories, that have failed due to a lack of indigenous political commitment and the shifting priorities of aid agencies.
Old financial models
There are reasons to be optimistic. But more needs to be done.
Support for research and innovation has been steadily growing over the past decade in individual countries and within Western aid agencies. Both increasingly accept that poverty alleviation is a long-term project that must include enhancement of a developing countries' capacity to carry out science and innovation.
The big problem is that the major international financial instruments that support development were designed in a previous era and have been slow to catch up with this new thinking. Yet budget stringencies mean that donor countries are unwilling to create new instruments, such as dedicated funds.
In Europe, for example, support for projects such as PAERIP have come out of the multiyear EU Framework Programme. Yet the programme's main purpose is to strengthen European research; aid to developing countries remains something of an add-on.
Conversely, relatively little European funding research and innovation infrastructure currently comes through the main channel for development assistance, namely the European Development Fund (EDF).
That needs to change. And this is a good time to do so, as the broad guidelines of EDF spending for 2014–2020 are due to be negotiated over the coming year. This provides an excellent opportunity to ensure that more of it goes on supporting science and innovation by allocating funds to research innovation infrastructure.
The latter is already being prioritised within drafts of the African Union's revised Consolidated Plan of Action, its main roadmap for supporting science and technology, reflecting an awareness that developing countries cannot always depend on partners and donors.
But Europe also needs to act. As it currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, Ireland is well placed to initiate the process of broadening the EDF's activities. For justification, it need look no further than its own success.
David Dickson is a science journalist who has worked on the staffs of Nature, Science and New Scientist, specialising in reporting on science policy. He was the founding director of SciDev.Net