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The president of the World Bank has urged developing countries to recognise the importance of science and technology in reducing poverty.

Speaking at a meeting in Washington on Thursday (15 February), Paul Wolfowitz recognised that developing countries faced major resource constraints in their public spending and that, to some, science might appear a lower priority than meeting basic educational or health needs.

But he said, "The amount of resources that poor countries devote to science can't be zero. That would condemn poor countries to backwardness".

The meeting of more than 300 ministers, science officials, private sector representatives and nongovernmental organisations addressed the role of science, technology and innovation in reducing poverty and achieving sustainable growth.

Wolfowitz pointed out that there was no explicit mention of science and technology in the UN Millenium Development Goals, partly because some quarters see scientific research as a luxury.

However, he said, "If you want to tackle poverty, science technology and innovation must be part of the picture".

He said a balance was needed between meeting short-term needs and long-term investments.

Wolfowitz dismissed the view that developing countries are not ready to deal with advanced research and that science and technology is just for the rich countries. "Increasingly that is not true," he said.

His remarks were seen as an important endorsement for efforts encouraging developing countries to build their scientific and technological infrastructure, by seeking loans from the World Bank. This continues the commitment of his predecessor, James Wolfensohn, to bring science and technology back to the forefront of the bank's lending policies.

He said that the advantages of having a strong capacity in science, technology and innovation included attracting — and retaining — talent. He cited Silicon Valley and Boston in the United States as examples.

"Perhaps it is a step too far to suggest that poor people around the world might copy this model," he admitted. "But I am not too sure, particularly given that one of the biggest challenges these countries face is reversing the brain drain".