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  • Commonwealth science body seeks new lease of life


The Commonwealth Science Council (CSC), the body that promotes scientific collaboration between the countries of the British Commonwealth, but has recently been facing questions of cost-effectiveness, has embarked on a bid to reinvigorate itself.

At their 21st meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week, the members of the council mandated its Executive Committee to act as a ‘task team’ to develop a renewal plan. This is due to be delivered by the end of the year, and is intended to help its member countries make better use of their scientific and technological resources.

The task force, which will be co-chaired by South Africa and India, is expected to focus on ways in which the council can increase its focus on technology and innovation-related issues. If their proposals are accepted, the council is likely to become more heavily engaged in helping countries link their scientific and technology activities to social and economic needs.

Speaking at the opening of the Johannesburg meeting, Ben Ngubane, South Africa’s minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology and the current chair of the council, said that the proposed renewal plan will seek to realign the CSC with the key themes and objectives of sustainable development, as identified, for example, at last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The 36-member science council currently engages in a range of activities intended “to facilitate the application of science and technology by member countries for sustainable economic, environmental, social and cultural development.”

In line with these commitments – and prior to the consideration of the renewal plan – last week’s meeting agreed to give priority in the next year to four areas: water and mineral resources, biodiversity and genetic resources, chemical research and environmental needs, and scientific networking through the Commonwealth Knowledge Network.

In recent years, however, there has been growing concern about the cost-effectiveness of the organisation. This has particularly been the case among the industrialised members of the council, leading to a net drop in income, and has led to deep questioning about its role.

The need for a reassessment of the CSC’s mission was, for example, recommended by an Intergovernmental Committee that was asked by the Commonwealth heads of government to review the mandates of all Commonwealth organisations.

In a statement issued prior to last week’s meeting, Ngubane said that he has been entrusted by the Commonwealth to reform the CSC "in a manner that will enable it to optimally harness the potential of science and technology as key drivers of sustainable growth and development in the Commonwealth".

Immediately prior to the CSC meeting, the South African government had organised a two-day colloquium for participants at which a number of speakers stressed the need for developing countries to make greater efforts to build their scientific activities into 'national systems of innovation'.

These included Kumar Bhattacharryya, leader of the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the UK University of Warwick, who urged scientists in such countries to stop being driven by the need for recognition by Nobel Prizes. Instead, he said, they should start focusing their efforts on less glamorous but crucial research that addressed important domestic problems.
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