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  • Will 2006 rise to the challenges laid down by 2005?

Last year failed to meet expectations of a significant shift in the nature of development aid. But it did highlight the challenges to be met if this is to be achieved.

Last year began with high hopes — after two decades of relative neglect — of new high-level political acknowledgement of the importance of science and technology to development. There were also hopes that this would be expressed through a significant increase in support from the international community for scientific capacity building (see Will 2005 be the year of 'science for development'?).

It was, for example, widely anticipated — correctly — that the need for such a move would be highlighted in important initiatives due to report in 2005, such as the UK-led Commission for Africa and the UN Millennium Project. Moreover, such a shift was already discernible within the aid agencies of several industrialised nations.

In addition, certain events dominating the headlines in 2005 reinforced the message. Most dramatic was the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami in the closing days of 2004. This revealed the need for enhanced disaster prediction, and for more sustainable development in the region, in both of which science and technology have a key role to play.

But if there has been significant progress in some individual areas — and a willingness to invest in tsunami forecasting is certainly one of them — progress in changing broader attitudes has been slow. To give just one example, there was little mention of Africa's needs for science and technology in the final communiqué from the G8 summit in July.

Political realities

It is essential that those demanding political recognition of such needs maintain their demands in 2006. It is also important that, if they are to be answered, the calls are informed by political realism — and this means developing an awareness of the importance of science that is based on substantiated evidence, not wishful thinking.

The picture is certainly far from gloomy. If the scientific and technological needs of the developing world failed to generate the public backing they required from political leaders of the industrialised world, there were promising signs from within the developing world itself.

In Africa, for example, the list of individual countries prepared to identify science and technology as a political priority — and to make a public commitment to this effect — is growing steadily.

So is the number of governments that accept that, to achieve this, science policies must be linked to broader development strategies. Awareness of the need to think both strategically and regionally is reflected in the decision to draw up and endorse a continent-wide "consolidated plan of action", which was approved by African science ministers at a meeting in Senegal, in September (click here for further details).

But drawing up a list of good intentions is only the first step. More difficult is persuading those holding the purse strings (which means finance ministers rather than science ministers) that investing in science and technology capacity should be given a higher priority relative to initiatives offering more immediate political rewards.

The dangers of protectionism

The problem is not restricted to the developing world. One of the biggest promises made by UK prime minister Tony Blair when he took over the six-month presidency of the European Union in July last year was that he wanted to use the opportunity to shift European funding away from subsidising food production and into investment in research and development.

To a large extent, these efforts failed. This was not because they were wrongly directed. Rather, the political momentum behind them was insufficient to overcome the protectionist traditions of European farmers, in France and elsewhere.

The same was true of the latest session of the so-called 'Doha round' of world trade negotiations that took place in Hong Kong shortly before the end of 2005. Again there had been promises — intended largely to address frustrations generated by negotiations two years earlier in Cancun, Mexico — that this would be a "development round".

Yet again, efforts to place a significantly greater emphasis on the use of aid to build economic capacity in developing countries — including the need for investment in both the concrete and the 'knowledge' infrastructure required to achieve this — were derailed by supporters of protectionist policies from industrialised nations.

The tasks ahead

This does not mean that all protectionism is bad. A heavily researched paper published last summer by the development organisation Christian Aid ruffled feathers in the economics community by making a powerful case for a limited amount of protectionism in developing countries as they take their first tentative steps towards building a knowledge economy.

The relevant part of the argument here is that the ability to participate effectively and successfully in an open global economy increasingly requires a level of scientific and technological capacity — but that protectionist measures can contribute to building this capacity (as both India and China have shown) in ways that can, if only temporarily, outweigh the purely economic argument in favour of open markets.

This is the case that must be made in the years ahead. The positive lessons of 2005 are, firstly, that the intellectual argument about the role of science and technology in meeting the needs of developing countries has largely been won, and secondly that — even if only to a limited extent — this argument is finding a growing place in the repertoire of those responsible for effective aid policies.

The less positive lesson is that, even if the intellectual argument has been won, ensuring that it is incorporated into mainstream public policy remains a major challenge, in developed and developing countries alike.

This is a political task, as it involves shifting priorities in a way that will inevitably mean there will be losers as well as winners: the European discussion has highlighted how more money for scientists can mean less for powerful political constituencies, such as farmers, and the type of opposition that this can generate.

Making a solid case for more investment in scientific and technological capacity can also be seen as a task for science communication. After all, to become politically acceptable, the case for such investment must also become acceptable to those who vote politicians into power. Which means demonstrating, in as many ways as possible, that it is in their own interests, even if this is in the long-term.

2005 may not have seen the challenge met effectively. But at least it has been thrown down. Hopefully 2006 will see it picked up and answered in a more concrete fashion.

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