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South Africa is thinking of drawing up a proposal that the cost of access by developing countries to the resources needed to build up capacity in science and technology — particularly resources that are available electronically — be priced according to the average income in the country concerned.

Speaking at a meeting in the national capital, Pretoria, last month, South African science minister Ben Ngubane suggested that such a move — which could, for example, become a point of discussion at the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) — “would immediately signal a positive attitude from the developed world”.

He added that it would free up resources currently being used by developing countries to secure access to scientific and technical information. In addition, he expressed his belief that it would “have a minimal impact on the viability or profitability of the publishers.”

Ngubane, whose full title is Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, made his comments in a wide-ranging speech on the contributions of science and technology to sustainable development. The speech was addressed to science officials in the National Research Foundation and other government agencies preparing for the WSSD, which opens in Johannesburg in August.

In his address, Ngubane said that until comparatively recently, science and technology had not been given a central role in the sustainable development debate. “Science and technology were often seen as a source of problems relating to environmental sustainability or, in some cases, also the solution to those same problems.”

More recently, however, it was becoming clear that there was a “crucial” relationship between science, knowledge and the availability of human capital to address the issues of sustainable development.

For example, recent work by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations indicates that most practitioners and policy makers have undergone a significant paradigm shift in recognising the critical role of technology — and knowledge more generally — in development.

“This is a very different approach from the traditional narrow thinking of development economics and practice over the past 30 years,” Ngubane said.

Reflecting this new perspective, Ngubane said that one of the key elements of sustainable science and technology systems was access to public knowledge resources, especially scientific journals and texts.

“It is sometimes difficult for people in the developed world to understand how large the expenditures for these resources are for universities and research institutes in the developing world,” he told the meeting.

The minister also suggested that developing countries may have convinced themselves that they cannot be players in the knowledge economy. “This mind-set needs to be broken and removed from our consciousness,” he said.

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