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David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and last year's AAAS president, discusses what it takes to develop good scientific institutions.

David Baltimore is prominent among the league of bright scientists who are also successful administrators. He won the Nobel Prize in 1975 for his discovery of reverse transcriptase, the viral enzyme that transcribes RNA into DNA, and has been president of the Rockefeller University in New York and of the California Institute of Technology in Pasedena.

As 2007 president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), he started advising the governments of India and Rwanda on science projects. He also set the theme for the association's annual meeting, held in Boston in February, as 'Science and technology from a global perspective'. 

In his opening address, Baltimore outlined a set of rules for strengthening international science, particularly in developing countries. These are to maintain high standards in selecting personnel; to concentrate resources into several good, small institutions, rather than into large, more diffuse ones; to aim for smaller, focused scientific environments, rather than disjointed behemoths; to keep teaching and research together; and to preserve scientists' academic freedom.

Waleed Al-Shobakky spoke with him on these issues.

In your opening address you talked about the tension between the need to strengthen a country's own science and technology, and the drive to collaborate with other countries.

If you consider that one of the reasons for government support of science and technology is that it serves the competitive process that goes on between countries, then it might seem contradictory to help each other.

But if you see the two different impulses as serving two different functions — one the function of economic competitiveness, the other the function of world development and world peace — then you can see the value of collaboration. And there is a lot of evidence that countries that are collaborating scientifically and economically are much less likely to find themselves at war against each other.

You also emphasised the need for basic research that "makes the leaps that produce breakthrough concepts". But how can developing countries, who are struggling to provide the basics to their people, afford to spend on research with no immediate applications?

It does not dampen their hopes. When Rwanda president Paul Kagame spoke at the [AAAS] meeting, he said that the developing world has to accept the challenge of making its science competitive on a world stage. What I believe very deeply is that even if you intend to have your graduates do the most practical things, the training they get in basic science is the best training you can get. 

Does a poor country like Rwanda really stand a chance in science, given that science is increasingly a resource-intensive enterprise?

Yes, they do stand a chance because the world is coming to their aid. What Rwanda has going for it is a stable and honest government. And with that they can do a lot that other countries cannot do, even ones that are wealthier. Also, they are willing to make the commitment to science and technology, which some other countries are not.

One of your rules is to start small and to focus resources. This does not seem to be what the Gulf States are doing, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates setting up several mega-projects simultaneously.

I am clearly warning against that, because what you get is liable to be mediocrity. It is hard to develop first-rate science. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia is not focusing on basic research — they have said quite clearly that they want to focus on applied research. I find that a little disturbing, because I think Saudi Arabia, which is such a wealthy country, should be aiming high.

You said in your address that "developing excellence is a slow, painstaking process". But is science at a juncture today where instruments and equipment have reached a high level of standardisation, allowing newcomers to import them and do sophisticated research almost immediately? Can scientific excellence be achieved much faster today than before?

No. If you can buy a machine and get it to do the work for you, then this is standard around the world. But it is the people who make the difference in research …doing new things and asking new questions. The quality of the people you have will determine what you produce. So you can have wonderful machines, but unless you have extraordinary people you are not going to be able to produce extraordinary science. 

You mentioned KAUST, which is in talks with US universities over cooperation agreements. But the negative image of Saudi Arabia in the United States makes many faculty members reluctant to go to Saudi Arabia or cooperate with KAUST. Will negative perceptions about some developing countries hamper their chances in science?

Yes, if scientists do not want to go there. But I do not really think this is a huge problem. You just have to demonstrate that life will be pleasant and science will get done; teaching will get done; and scientists will be prepared to go, particularly if they will get big salaries, which is what KAUST is talking about.

You're enthusiastic about the development of science institutions in developing countries such as India. But to many, at least as far as science is concerned, it is the countries that were doing well that are now doing better, whereas those at the bottom continue to lag significantly behind.

I do not think that is true. I think in fact many [developing] countries have had significant growth. And in the situations where countries have been politically stable and honest, they have been able to move forward.

The problem is when you get a situation like in Kenya, which has been doing very well economically, thanks to significant growth over the past ten years. But then it explodes, as it did recently, with all the problems of ethnic strife that have never been resolved. The problem is not that they have not shown any growth. The problem is that they have not been able to maintain stability over a long enough period of time to make a difference [with regard to science].

What can developing countries learn from the experience of India?

Many academic institutions in India — some of which are very strong — date back to the British days. They inherited British universities and they used them very effectively. In Africa the same thing is true, as in Uganda and Kenya. But those two left their universities to go to ruin, instead of using them as a base for development.

But the first thing you learn from India is that a good, solid democracy, even if a little corrupt, is a wonderful form of government. It gives India a huge strength. 

In relation to Africa, as well as China, India's democracy is unique. Africa has to find a route to move towards democracy. And it is not in the very simplistic terms of George W. Bush, but it is true that autocratic governments, particularly with the increasing power that governments have today, are inimical to economic development.