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Lessons we have learned from history

I read with interest the editorial by Keith Bezanson and Geoffrey Oldham (see Rethinking science aid) and the subsequent correspondence with Andrew Barnett (see The role of innovation in development policy).

I am glad that Bezanson and Oldham have now acknowledged that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee did recognise the importance of an innovation-driven approach to scientific and technological aid programmes in its recent report The Use of Science in UK International Development Policy as this was certainly not clear in their original editorial.

However, I was very disappointed to see Bezanson and Oldham repeat their allegation that the committee had not sought to learn the "seminal lessons of history". During the course of the inquiry into the use of science in UK international development policy, we received more than 100 written memoranda of evidence, took oral evidence from 27 individuals with a wide-range of backgrounds and experience and held private meetings with experts both from the United Kingdom and from developing countries.

We also conducted extensive surveys of the existing literature on this subject and undertook a visit to Malawi to improve our understanding of the issues involved and to speak directly to those affected. The report was drafted on the basis of the substantial body of evidence collected during the inquiry.

It is hard to reconcile these efforts with the allegation made by Bezanson and Oldham that we have not "attempted to learn the lessons from the past 50 years of applying science and technology to development".

Bezanson and Oldham highlight the need for a "more nuanced focus on priority strategic choices for poor countries, including issues of the most developmentally effective sequencing of science and technology investments for development". This seems to be an entirely sensible approach and one that is fully consistent with the points made in our report.

I firmly believe that, as noted in the recent SciDev.Net editorial by David Dickson (see Will 2005 be the year of 'science for development'?), there is now a real opportunity to focus the world's attention on the role of science and technology in development. It would be highly regrettable if a lack of unity between those of us in a position to promote this cause were to weaken our ability to do so effectively.