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Donors should take an 'innovation' rather than a 'research' approach to designing scientific and technological aid programmes.

2005 already appears set to be a momentous year for international development. There is a growing political realisation in the 'G8' group of leading industrialised countries that the world is not on track to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). New initiatives proposed for African development are already on the political agenda for the year, and in September, the General Assembly of the United Nations will address what actions are needed if the MDGs are not to become yet another unrealised promise of international development.

Much of the current focus is on the clear lack of sufficient funding for development. But there is also growing awareness that much more than money is needed; new approaches to aid and development are also urgently required.

Recent proposals for transforming our approach to aid have included the suggestion that renewed attention be paid to the role of science and technology. SciDev.Net recently drew attention to this in its editorial of 4 January 2005 (see Will 2005 be the year of 'science for development'?). This states emphatically that:

"… the new challenge will be to avoid the mistakes of the past by ensuring that science and technology … are not seen as offering instant cures to deep-rooted social and economic problems."

We agree fully. During the past couple of years, a plethora of reports and books have addressed this issue. These have included reports from the World Bank, the Inter-Academy Council, the Millennium Development Project, and, most recently, the UK House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology.

Each has its strengths and weaknesses. But they share a common feature: none has attempted to learn the lessons from the past 50 years of applying science and technology to development.

This is a glaring weakness, for example, in the report of the UK parliamentary committee in its otherwise excellent analysis linking UK aid to issues relating to science and technology. The report urges the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to give greater support to efforts to boost local scientific research capability in the developing world, for example through the creation of centres of scientific excellence.

But the history of development efforts over the past 50 years shows convincingly that, on their own, such measures are unlikely to contribute much to economic growth and poverty reduction in the developing world.

Learning from the past

Ever since the issue was placed on the world's development agenda by the 1963 UN Conference On Science And Technology For Development, both rich and poor countries have been exploring whether — and if so, how — science and technology might be mobilised to address world poverty. The 40 years since then have seen a number of remarkable success stories. But they have also seen many failures. The attention of today's decision-makers needs to be drawn to some of the lessons to be learned from both the successes and failures.

The first lesson is based on the experience of those Asian economies — such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong — that successfully moved from relative poverty to relative prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s. These are usually held up as illustrating how the application of science and technology leads to desirable development.

Science and technology certainly played a major role in this transformation. But the real lesson lies in the order and timing of different types of scientific and technological activities.

Initially, for example, attention in all these countries focused on importing technology from abroad. This was followed by efforts to master the technology, to copy it (through what is known as 'reverse engineering'), and to make incremental improvements through improved design engineering and applied research.

Eventually, several of these countries began to invest heavily in scientific research. But that only happened after more that twenty years of direct investment in technology.

Other factors, of course, contributed to the economic success of these societies, such as heavy government investment in primary, secondary, technical and tertiary education. Industrial policies were also critical, involving managed credit and the protection of nascent industries, followed by fortuitously-timed entry into global markets.

The second lesson comes mainly from the experience of many Latin American countries during the same period, namely the 1970s and 1980s. In contrast to the Asian 'tigers', these invested heavily in building their national scientific research capacity and creating centres of scientific excellence.

The result, according to Latin American policy analysts, was an increase in the number of research scientists and more scientific papers published in academic journals. But there was little contribution to the economic development of the countries in the region.

Taken together, the experience of the Asian tigers and Latin America countries suggest that, in the early stages of a country's industrial development, there is little — if any — direct relationship between the success of efforts to build national scientific research capacities on the one hand, and economic development on the other.

Contemporary relevance

It might be argued that the global context has since changed so greatly as to invalidate these lessons. We believe the opposite to be the case, and that these changes have actually reinforced their importance. 

The first and most significant change has been the spread of globalisation. This has brought both new opportunities and new threats for the application of science and technology to the prospects of developing countries.

Fundamental changes are also taking place in the nature of the knowledge used in innovation. This in turn is leading to increasing specialisation by organisations engaged in different aspects of the innovation process.

There is, for example, a new international division of labour in which science-based production companies now frequently carry out research and development in one country, do design work in another, establish production facilities in a third, and manage global sales from a fourth.

Moreover, many innovation-related activities that used to be carried out in-house are now carried out by independent suppliers of knowledge-intensive business services or have been transferred to key suppliers.

As a result, the international labour market for scientific and technological capabilities is becoming increasingly differentiated. At the same time, participation in global production systems is becoming dependent on specific skills. For most developing countries — and excepting countries such as China and India, which are hardly representative of developing countries as a whole — these are not research skills.

An integrated approach to science and production

A second critical change has been the transformation of our understanding of the way that knowledge is created, acquired, assimilated, used and diffused, by both enterprises and institutions such as hospitals and universities. Thirty years ago, it was widely assumed that there was a linear process leading from basic to applied research, then to design, to development, and finally to production. Each such step often had its own institutional arrangements or departments within enterprises and institutions.

This linear approach has now largely been abandoned in favour of a much more systemic approach. Many large corporations have merged their research activities with production departments. Networks linking scientific and technical activities both within and between institutions have become commonplace, including new forms of interaction between universities and business enterprises, and both within and between countries.

A third change is the emergence of new arrangements that seek to create a market for 'international public goods' required principally by developing countries. For example, although new biomedical knowledge is needed to address diseases that mainly affect developing countries, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, the financial circumstances of many such countries means that there is insufficient potential profit to be made for private companies to be willing to take the financial risks of developing vaccines on their own.

Yet the experience and scientific capabilities of private companies in developing drugs is essential for new and successful vaccines. As a result, new mechanisms have emerged, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation. These seek to create public-private partnerships (PPPs) that can mobilise the very best of international scientific expertise (even if the science on which these new partnerships are based is highly segmented), while at the same time providing the economic and financial incentives essential to secure private investment.

Thus, while there have been profound changes in international science and technology since the 1970s and 1980s, these revalidate and reinforce, for both developing countries and aid donors, the importance of the lessons drawn from the experiences of the Asian Tigers and many Latin American countries in this earlier period.

The need for an 'innovation' approach

In its response to the recommendations of the UK parliamentary committee, therefore, we urge the UK Department for International Development — and donor agencies in general — to look carefully into the lessons that can be learned from prior efforts to mobilise science and technology for development. And we urge donors to take an 'innovation' approach, rather than a 'scientific research' approach, in designing their scientific and technological aid programmes.

It has been widely pointed out, for example in the reports listed above, that interventions aimed directly at relatively short-term gains in poverty reduction can crowd out longer term investments in building science and technology capabilities. But it is also true that such longer term investments can themselves crowd out investments in, for example, the education of girls and women, or micro-credit schemes that are demonstrably effective in reducing poverty.

Four factors would follow from an innovation-based donor approach to science and technology for development. First, funding for science and technology would not be generic (i.e. directed at building general science and technology capabilities in developing countries) but focussed on a relatively small number of specific problem areas that require urgent solutions, and that cannot wait until generic research capacity is built in the developing world.

Second, investments in science, technology and innovation would be predicated on industrial strategies aimed at economic growth, within which international support for science and technology would largely be demand led. This means not only responding to conventional market signals but also exploring new 'demand-based' models of scientific and technological aid, such as the public-private partnerships mentioned above.

Third, the linear knowledge model linking research to production would be explicitly avoided through policy instruments that seek to differentiate, by countries and by regions, the best ways to create, acquire, assimilate, use and diffuse knowledge.

Finally, the emphasis in financing research would be on developing research networks in the developing world which include research partners in the developed world, and which can be certain of receiving long-term financial backing.

Keith Bezanson is the former director of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, and former president of the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in Canada. Geoff Oldham is former director of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, and chairman of the board of trustees of SciDev.Net.

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