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Last week, the UK's scientific community blasted the government for its poor track record on promoting science for development. Not all the criticism is justified, but improvement is certainly needed.

It is relatively unusual for the Royal Society, Britain's top scientific organisation, to come up with a broad-ranging critique of a government department that is quite as damning as the statement that it issued last week on support for science – or rather the lack of such support — within UK aid programmes. The comments were made in evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is currently carrying out an inquiry into this topic. In uncompromising terms, the scientific body accused the department of pursuing an approach to the use and funding of science in developing countries that was "short-term and uncoordinated". And it added that because of a lack, for example, of a chief scientist in the department, its ability to feed scientific knowledge into development aid policies was "severely restricted" (see UK aid policy 'should make better use of science').

DFID officials were robust in their response to the Royal Society's comments. They were equally robust in verbal evidence to the committee on the first public session of the Parliamentary inquiry (the same day that the society's evidence was published). Their main line of defence is, on the surface, an eminently sensible one. Namely that the prime role of the department is the alleviation of poverty, and that all the activities it supports — including scientific research – must be explicitly directed towards that.

Indeed in many ways, the department has little to be ashamed of. It can – and does – point to a large number of research projects that it supports that fall squarely within its mission. Its annual research budget is more than US$250 million, and the money is spent, often highly effectively, on topics ranging from the development of microbicides to combat HIV/AIDS, to vaccination against cattle diseases that ravage herds in East Africa.

Furthermore, there is a somewhat self-serving tone in some of the Royal Society's evidence. The society has a strong case when it argues that practical innovations in areas such as medical and agricultural research require a strong underpinning in fundamental research. But it could be argued that the main responsibility for carrying out such research rests with research councils, and that the role of the overseas aid agency should be primarily to put research results into practice. Furthermore the conviction that British universities and research institutes often remain the best place to carry out – or at least organise – such research, as well as providing a training ground for those will carry it out in the future, still carries an unfortunate whiff of colonial superiority.

Valid criticism

Nevertheless the scientists have a point. It is not a lack of research as such that is currently missing from DFID's portfolio of activities, but insufficient awareness of the need for strategic linkages between the research base and the social structures which put research into practice. And this cannot be done just by recruiting social scientists to design knowledge transfer mechanisms, but requires effective participation by researchers (and engineers) at every step in the process. (It would be interesting to know, for example, how DFID's current advisors are distributed between the different professions).

This need for better strategic linkages is true within Britain itself. The Royal Society's evidence points to a number of areas where such alliances are missing, for example between DFID's technical advisers on dealing with natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, and research council scientists who are investigating the underlying geological causes of such disasters. And it is also true within developing countries. Here the failure has been to put sufficient emphasis on the need for local capacity building, creating the human resources and infrastructures needed to ensure that research is applied effectively where it is most needed.

Behind much of this – and it is a criticism that applies as much to some of the Royal Society's comments as it does to DFID's behaviour – lies a traditional view of innovation as a one-dimensional process that starts in the laboratory, proceeds through technology development programmes, and eventually ends up being applied to social problems. This may have been an accurate description in the past. But it is becoming increasingly less so in a world where locally expressed social needs and sensitivities are increasingly determining the content of research programmes, and where, as a result, the whole process of innovation has become a much more interactive one between research producers, users and decision-makers.

The need for a systems approach

It is a new approach, often expressed in the idea of promoting 'systems of innovation', that has become widely accepted (and adopted) within advanced industrialised economies over the past 20 years, but is still far from being accepted within the development assistance world. What it means, however, is that it is increasingly difficult to place a fence around those areas of research that can be identified as relevant to the needs of the poor – and thus equally difficult to design a research strategy that can claim to be based solely on those needs. In a world where small-scale farmers can make a better assessment of the optimal time to sow seeds by using guidance from an analysis of soil temperature based on satellite images, or where cheap and effective diagnostic techniques can rely on the most recent advances in genomics, this distinction becomes increasingly meaningless.

This is not to say, of course, that the needs of the poor should be ignored in designing research programmes, and that these should be determined primarily by the intellectual interests of the scientific community and the technological opportunities that these create. For that strategy could reduce the incentives for investing in and carrying out the research in the first place (particularly in areas where the commercial returns are likely to be minimal). For the same reason, keeping the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals in mind in designing research programmes, however ambitious (and perhaps unrealistic) some of these may be, remains a valuable reminder that the ultimate function of research is to meet human needs, and that this has to be reflected in everything that scientists do.

What it does mean, however – and here the Royal Society is on target in its criticism – is that, in developing a strategy for using science to meet development goals, DFID needs to take a more holistic approach. This will embrace the fact that the work of fundamental researchers must be an integral part of this strategy. But it must also acknowledge that research on its own will not deliver the goods effectively unless it is embedded in a wider picture, in other words within a total 'system of innovation', with the many practices and dimensions that that implies.

The way ahead

To its credit, DFID is already embarking on a major shift in this direction. As officials from the department explained to the parliamentary inquiry last week, a major restructuring of its research-related activities is currently being planned, based on a review that has already identified many of the weaknesses in the current strategy that the Royal Society complained about. This is, for example, widely expected to place increased emphasis on the need for stronger capacity-building efforts in the developing countries themselves, and to give the necessary attention to building effective mechanisms for better communication between research producers, users and decision-makers.

Not all of the changes are likely to be entirely welcome by the scientific community. If the relative weight given to activities such as capacity building and communication is to go up, then that given to direct support for research will go down. Which is fine if a substantial overall increase in funding can be obtained from the Treasury. But it is less good news for DFID-funded research in British universities if the extra money does not come through.

Hopefully DFID will stand firm in defence of a wider vision. Hopefully, too, the new strategy, once it is unveiled, will reflect a broad commitment to the importance of scientific knowledge as an integral part of a wider system of innovation whose ultimate effects – even if not immediately discernible – will be precisely the poverty reduction that the department's political mandate requires. And hopefully the Royal Society will see in this new commitment an answer to its broader strategic concerns, even if its members are not happy with all the details of the outcome.

DFID is one of the sponsors of SciDev.Net.

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