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  • The World Bank does care about science


Phillip A. Griffiths responds to a SciDev.Net editorial by arguing that the World Bank's Millennium Science Initiative confirms its belief in the importance of science to the developing world.

A recent SciDev.Net editorial asked: Does the World Bank really care about science?. My answer is yes, it does.

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, chairs the board of trustees of the Princeton-based Institute for Advanced Study, where I am director. Five years ago, he asked me to help him and his colleagues in the Bank to establish a programme that would infuse in Bank client countries some of the qualities and goals of the Institute, which fosters scientific excellence in conditions conducive to productivity – certainly a visionary concept for the developing world.

Wolfensohn appreciates the benefits of science for sustainable development, and he was insistent that capacity building in science and technology, involving active, world-class scientific research, training and applications in client countries, become part of the Bank’s Comprehensive Development Framework. With his guidance and strong encouragement, the Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) was established in 1998. Strategic direction and scientific guidance for the MSI is provided by a group of representatives of the international scientific community and the private sector, the Science Institutes Group (SIG), based at the Institute for Advanced Study and working in informal partnership with the World Bank.

The mission of the MSI is to create and nurture world-class science and scientific talent in the developing world. The MSI is by now flourishing in Chile, Mexico and Brazil, supported largely through World Bank loans. MSI projects, which vary in nature but have in common scientific excellence and multi-sectorial linkages, are designed by scientists in each country to capitalise on scientific strengths and address local needs, in a process facilitated by World Bank field staff and by SIG. In its first two years of existence, the MSI had generated initial Bank loans of US$5 million in Chile, US$10 million in Mexico, and US$86 million in Brazil, a significant sum for pure science in the developing world.

The early success of the MSI led Wolfensohn to ask us to introduce the MSI concept in sub-Saharan Africa. With the help of the Third World Academy of Sciences, SIG convened a group of distinguished African scientists who, with the encouragement and support of local World Bank representatives, worked over a period of two years to identify priority areas for scientific development in the region and to design projects around these areas. In the later stages, currently underway, World Bank staff have been working closely with SIG and with local scientists and government officials to help prepare the projects to qualify for Bank financing.

We are proud to say that an initial US$5 million loan for an MSI in biotechnology in Uganda is now under review, and we anticipate that a sister project in Cameroon will reach a comparable stage within the next few months. An MSI in Instrumentation and Information Technology in Tanzania is also moving toward implementation, and initiatives in several other African countries are at earlier stages of development. These projects represent the first time that science has been formally designated a priority in these World Bank client countries not only for education, but for development, as it has at last been recognised that science is a tool to build capacity and, potentially, to generate revenue for the country. World Bank local staff, in partnership with the scientific leaders of the MSI, have been highly effective in communicating this concept to government officials.

The success of the MSI illustrates the value of collaboration among the World Bank, the international scientific community as represented by a group of distinguished scientists who understand the role of science and technology in capacity building and development and who command the respect of the scientific community worldwide, local scientists who lead the project design process, and local government officials in finance, science and technology, and education.

There is a perennial battle, in the United States no less than in developing countries, to justify funding for science, with its naturally long lead time to return on investment, when it is so easy to focus resources on issues that have tangible, short-term solutions. Through the Millennium Science Initiative, we strive to make science part of the macroeconomic development framework. The World Bank has contributed to the effort through its active role in the MSI and by designating science as a priority area in its development strategies for client countries. Wolfensohn’s quest for a strong World Bank role in science for the 21st century is on the path to fulfillment.

No one can say whether the World Bank, or for that matter the NIH or the NSF, is doing enough for science, but there is no disputing that the World Bank cares.

The author is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and chairman of the Science Institutes Group.

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