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A new global science fund is needed to bridge the growing “scientific apartheid” between the rich and poor countries of the world, according to the former head of an international network of top agricultural research centres.

The proposal has been put forward by Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexander in Egypt and former chairman of Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Addressing a meeting in Johannesburg on Friday (30 August) organised by the InterAcademy Panel, Serageldin said that half of the money distributed by such a fund should be used to build up scientific research institutions in developing countries.

The other half, he said, should be distributed on a strictly competitive basis, according to formal peer review.

Serageldin stressed that his proposal for such a fund — designed to reverse a rapidly growing 'knowledge gap' between developed and developing countries — was being put forward in a strictly personal capacity.

However he is also the chair of an international panel set up to look at the need for capacity building in science by the InterAcademy Council, a body established three years ago, largely at the prompting of the US National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

It is anticipated, therefore, that a proposal for such a fund could figure prominently in the final report of this panel when it is published next year.

Serageldin’s remarks were made during a meeting organised as part of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation that is being run by the South African government as a parallel event to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

He said that it was important to recognise a wide and growing gap between the industrialised and developing countries in terms of their capability to carry out scientific research and technology adaptation.

“At a time of an enormous explosion in knowledge, one of the scariest statistics is that while those living in developed countries earn on average 40 times as much as those in poor countries, in terms of investment in research the level of expenditure per capita is almost 220 times higher,” Serageldin said.

There is therefore a great need to build up a basic scientific capability in such countries, he said. But this would only be achieved if the developing world learnt to appreciate the values of science. “These values require intellectual honesty as well as creativity and imagination,” said Serageldin.

“They also require encouraging a certain constructive subversiveness; science does not advance unless you overthrow the dominant paradigm, and young people must therefore be allowed to challenge their professor.”

The scientific community needs to move in this direction if extra investment in research is to be successful, he said. “It is a question of whether we have the backbone to say, if it is going to be done, it has to be done correctly.”

In terms of the financing of research, Serageldin said that a competitive bidding process for research funds was essential; government research grants should not be seen as “an entitlement”.

The fund that he was proposing was both to seek to support centres of excellence with seed funding, and to “lubricate” collaboration between researchers in developed and developing countries

To achieve success, however, it is necessary to convince governments of the economic value of injecting greater funding into research. “As we enter the new century, we are at a turning point in history,” Serageldin said, “A relatively small investment today will produce large returns in the future.”

He suggested that the extra funds required to build scientific capacity in developing countries were “trivial” compared to the amount of public money being spent in areas such as agricultural subsidies. “But it should have an enormous impact on combating the growing scientific apartheid that we currently face.”

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