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  • A case for more 'joined up thinking'

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The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals cannot be achieved without the use of science. But more 'joined up thinking' is required in development circles if this is to be realised.

In the late 1990s, a British science minister applied the phrase 'joined up thinking' to convey his idea that governments should support science not as an isolated practice, but as an activity that underpins every sphere of social and economic activity, and hence all aspects of government policy. As a result, he argued — successfully — it should not be given a separate ministry in the new Labour government of the time. Rather it needed its status enhancing within each separate government department, in an integrated and coherent manner.

Two documents issued last week by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicate how far there is to go in achieving 'joined up thinking' at the international level, at least as far as the role of science in development is concerned. The first was a communiqué released at the end of a two-day meeting of science ministers from the OECD's member states (the first such meeting for five years). This stressed the critical role of science, technology and innovation in promoting a country's social and economic well-being, paying particular attention, for example, to their potential contribution to sustainable development (See Ministers seek 'science and sustainability' meeting).

The second was the annual report of the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the powerful group that reviews the aid strategies of member states, and seeks to enhance their effectiveness. The report paints a daunting, if realistic, picture of the current challenges facing the international aid community, pointing to both the successes and failures of the past few years. It expresses strong doubts, for example, about the chances of achieving the much-quoted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of development targets which the DAC itself first put forward in 1996, and have since been endorsed at an international level by all member governments of the United Nations.

What is striking about the DAC report, however, is the absence of any reference to the issues raised by the science ministers. Indeed, neither the words 'science' or 'innovation' appear once in the text of the 244-page report. The role of research in development aid is not entirely neglected. But it is confined primarily to a discussion of aid for agriculture and food production, for example by pointing to the declining support from the international community for the research institutes belonging to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

A change of culture

There is all the more reason, therefore, to welcome a separate report being released this week by an advisory committee to the director general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. This presents the interim findings of an international task force on science, technology and innovation whose members represent a range of science- and technology-related professions. It was jointly coordinated by Calestous Juma of Harvard University and Lee Yee Cheong, president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations and vice-president of the Malaysian Academy of Sciences.

The task force has been set up by Annan to suggest how science and technology might be harnessed more effectively to meet the MDGs. Some of its interim recommendations are relatively pragmatic. Given, for example, that several of the MDGs are directed at global health issues — the eighth goal, for example, talks of a commitment to "have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases" — it is not surprising that the report places a strong emphasis on the extent to which medical research is needed to achieve such a target. In particular, it sketches out the potential offered by modern genomics to identify novel forms of diagnosis and treatment.

But the panel's interim report goes beyond purely functional aspects to make a strong argument that progress towards achieving the MDGs will also required a broader change of culture within the whole UN system. This is one that places a strategic concern for science, technology and innovation at the heart of the missions of all UN agencies. As the report puts it, "meeting the MDGs will require a substantial reorientation of development policies to focus on key sources of economic growth, especially those associated with the use of new scientific and technological knowledge and the related institutional adjustments."

Challenges ahead

It would be naïve to underestimate the size of such a task. One of the most substantial challenges is the continued belief in many development circles that the technology required to meet social and economic goals is essentially a tool that can be taken off a shelf, or at least whose creation can be safely left to others. Such a belief ignores the extent to which much of the needed technology will only be produced if sufficient demand can be created for it. It also ignores the essential role of scientific and technological capacity within developing countries themselves.

A second obstacle, which the report itself acknowledges, is the distrust of science and technology that continues to exist within important sectors of the development aid community. "The general attitude toward technology in a number of international agencies is sceptical or even hostile," it says. The report attributes this partly to the fact that technology challenges traditional views about human progress, and partly to the view that technology has had a negative impact on culture and the environment.

Thirdly, and perhaps related to the previous two factors, the single-mindedness of the task force's report is not necessarily universally shared. It states, for example, that aid programmes need to reflect "the obvious view" that the best way to address poverty is to stimulate economic growth, adding that this "in turn will require a focus on science, technology and innovation".

But the DAC report provides a timely reminder that such a view is not obvious to everyone, describing the choice between economic growth and poverty reduction as "probably the most venerable debate among development theoreticians". And even though the DAC report accepts that both are needed, its own lack of any mention of the need for a focus on science, technology and innovation reveals how far the message has yet to spread.

A road map for the future

Tackling these obstacles will require both perseverance and tact. On the one hand, the case must continue to be made that the strategic approach which the OECD science ministers endorsed in Paris last week is applicable to both developed and developing nations. And that means formulating all aspects of social and economic policy around the need to promote science, technology and innovation — not treating these as a separate sphere. Countries such as South Africa (which was present at the meeting and signed the final communiqué, even though it is not an OECD member) are already putting this approach into practice. But it needs far wider appreciation.

Tact will be required in overcoming the cultural challenges identified above. Sadly, it is not unfair to say that some of the distrust of science and technology is a direct result of the hubris with which development policies appear, in the past, to have been driven too often by technological imperatives. In cases where hydroelectric power schemes have destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of people, or even quick technical 'fixes' have ended up creating serious problems of their own — such as the way that boring deep wells in Bangladesh has led to widespread arsenic poisoning — such distrust can have a solid basis.

Providing such factors are taken into account, the Millennium task force has come up with a valuable road map that both charts the geography of the terrain to be covered — for example, the need to bring back support for tertiary education as a development priority — and identifies some of the routes forward. Key among these is the creation of an enhanced science advisory capacity at the heart of the United Nations itself. That in itself will not be sufficient to achieve the 'joined up thinking' that is so badly needed. But it is certainly a necessary step.

Click here for a PDF of the interim report of the United Nations Millennium Project's Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation. Comments are welcome.

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