At its global summit next week the G8 needs to build on the work of its predecessors, putting science and technology back at the heart of the international aid agenda.
At their worst, global summits can be transitory events that have little impact on world affairs. Who now remembers the 'Action plan for science and technology for sustainable development' agreed at the G8 summit in Evian, France, in 2003?
But at their best, the G8 meetings — which bring together the leaders of the seven largest industrial nations, as well as the president of the European Commission — can catalyse international political momentum to act on key issues. Two years ago the meeting held in Gleneagles, Scotland, put the problems of Africa squarely on the international agenda.
The German government, which is hosting this year's summit next week (6–8 June), is already committed to maintaining a focus on Africa — even though this will be competing with concerns that range from climate change to Iraq.
Two strategic approaches are essential for the German summit. First, there must be a determination to meet promises made at previous summit meetings. G8 countries are still far from fulfilling the commitment made at Gleneagles to double their spending on overseas aid to US$50 billion a year by 2010.
Second, there must be more 'joined-up' thinking between the different issues addressed at the summit. Too often, issues are discussed as separate agenda items. The important linkages between them frequently receive insufficient attention.
Both approaches are essential for tackling science-related issues and how they relate to fighting poverty in Africa.
Addressing the financial shortfall
The Gleneagles summit gave science a passing acknowledgement in its final communiqué, which pledged support for 'networks of excellence' involving universities and science and technology institutions in developed and developing nations.
However, this fell considerably short of a proposal made before the summit by the Commission for Africa. The proposal called for a major financial commitment of US$5 billion over ten years to African universities — and a further US$3 billion over this period to developing centres of excellence. These sums were viewed as essential for building the scientific and technological capacity to meet challenges such as those identified in the Millennium Development Goals.
A large financial gap remains between the need and the resources available to fill it. Last month this gap was identified as a priority for the German summit in a statement presented to German chancellor Angela Merkel by a group of the world's leading science academies, including those of China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa (see Scientists demand G8 action on climate change).
Of equal importance is the need to link the reinforcement of Africa's science base with enhancing the continent's ability to address the problems of climate change.
Global warming is high on the G8 agenda next week and the US administration has signalled a less intransigent approach to long-term goals for reducing carbon emissions than in the past. These are promising signs that concrete progress will be made on the political front.
But this progress will be achieved only if the scientific and technical means are put in place. And one of the requirements will be for regions like Africa to develop the capacity to monitor the impact of climate change, to predict its likely impacts and to carry out research and development on appropriate responses, such as energy-saving technologies and drought-resistant crops.
Guarding intellectual property
There is an even bigger issue where 'joined-up' thinking is needed. This is the need for strong links between policies to promote science-based innovation — in developed and developing countries alike — and the political context in which innovation policies are implemented.
The German government has indicated that it would like the G8 meeting to focus on the importance of intellectual property rights (IPR) in promoting innovation. Its main concern, however, seems to be policing existing IPR regimes and preventing the manufacture of counterfeit goods.
Although that is an important issue, it should not be allowed to overshadow an issue of greater concern to developing countries, particularly the poorest ones. This is the fact that the present international IPR system is stacked against them, and needs significant modification if it is to serve the interest of all nations, not just the more economically powerful ones (see Now is the time for international action on patents).
Building on previous summits
Next week's summit should seek to build on its predecessors and make existing commitments more robust. The components are now in place. As a result of previous summits, we now have a significantly increased financial commitment to help developing nations, as well as a willingness to focus on specific problems such as malaria and climate change.
There is growing awareness that none of these problems will be tackled without science and technology, and that that in turn requires investment in an educational and research infrastructure. Governments need to do more to promote the transfer of knowledge and new technologies from laboratories into practice.
The next step will be to bring these together in an integrated whole. This can only be done at the political level. And it will be achieved only by ensuring that policy decisions taken at the top of the global economy take into account the needs and aspirations of those at the bottom. That is where the real joined-up thinking should occur.