Britain's minister for international development, Hilary Benn, has rejected charges that the United Kingdom does not take sufficient account of science in its overseas aid programmes.
His statement coincided with the release by the Department for International Development (DFID) of its draft strategy for supporting research over the next two years, during which time its spending on research is planned to increase by at least 25 per cent.
Speaking at a meeting in London yesterday (12 May), Benn said that both science and technology were "fundamental" in the fight against poverty. "It is crucial that [developing countries] achieve the capacity both to produce science and to put science into practice," he said.
At the same time, Benn acknowledged to members of the Foundation for Science and Technology that there was a perception in some quarters that DFID was not doing enough about science.
His comment referred to recent criticism made by prominent members of the scientific community – including most recently the government's chief scientific advisor, David King – about the lack of an adequate awareness of science within DFID's activities (see Britain's aid policy lacks science expertise).
"I am happy to acknowledge that we have things to learn from you," Benn told the meeting, which took place at the Royal Society, the heart of Britain's scientific establishment. "We need to talk more so that we can understand each other better. I hope this evening will be the start of a bigger conversation between us."
In his speech, Benn pointed out that DFID has a clear mission to help reduce world poverty. "Everything we do has to be judged against this yardstick," he said.
But he said he was also convinced that science had an important role to play in achieving this objective. For example, he referred to a DFID-backed research project to investigate whether providing pregnant women with vitamin A supplements could significantly cut the level of maternal deaths in Africa.
"This is an example of what we need," said Benn. "It is science in the service of the poor. It shows how science and technology are of fundamental importance in the fight against poverty."
At the same time, Benn acknowledged that much better links were needed between research and users, and that what was important was not only scientific discoveries, but also innovations that were actually put to use.
"The prime minister has frequently said that innovation is essential to social and economic development," said Benn. "That is all the more true for developing countries."
Benn's talk coincided with the release of DFID's draft plan for spending on research during the period 2005-2007. At present, DFID's Central Research Department spends around £80 million (US$142 million) per year on research. "We will increase this significantly to at least £100 million (US$177 million) in 2006/7," said Benn.
Comments are being invited from the scientific community on the draft strategy, which says that two-thirds of the department's research spending will be focused on four areas: agricultural productivity in Africa, killer diseases, the impact of climate change, and "states that work in the interests of the poor".
The draft strategy states that in two cases – DFID-funded programmes on renewable natural resources and engineering – the department intends to wait before taking decisions on the direction of future research, in order to benefit from the major evaluations due in 2004.
In addition to the new research strategy, Benn also announced that he was launching a "redesigned" higher education links programme, which is intended to foster closer working relationships between universities in Britain and the developing world.
"The new scheme will be built on the strength of existing programmes, but with stronger emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa, on meeting the Millennium Development Goals, and on capacity building for science and technology," Benn said.
However Benn argued that where science capacity was weak in a developing country, the main causes were often not specific to science, but resulted from a range of other factors, such as insufficient finance, weak telecommunications, a lack of physical security, or even the lack of clean water supplies.
"Tackling all of these issues is central to DFID's country programmes," said Benn. And implementing sustainable change in the long-term meant working not around but through governments, backing their own poverty reduction strategies, such as Kenya's recent decision to provide free primary education to all children.
"Science holds out the opportunity of major benefits for the poor," said Benn. "But for those benefits to materialise, a country has to have a working system of government. It is for that reason that DFID is prepared to support both science and systems that make a real different to people's lives.
Link to DFID Research Funding Framework 2005-7