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The UK government is to launch a new programme to help developing countries apply cutting-edge developments in areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and information and communication technology (ICT) to meet the needs of the poor.

It has also pledged to provide a "significant increase" in funding for research communication and techniques for increasing the impact of research results, describing communication as a field in which the United Kingdom must "continue to earn our reputation as a leader".

Both moves are included in the new five-year research strategy for the UK Department for International Development (DFID), presented in London yesterday (22 April).

It follows a previous commitment to double funding for development-related research to £1 billion (US$1.98 billion) (see UK aid agency doubles funding for scientific research).

Speaking at the launch, Douglas Alexander, UK secretary of state for international development, said the additional money would make the United Kingdom the "lead donor country" for development research.

"But we must also ensure that we put research to the best possible use," he said. "And that means ensuring that research also provides the evidence that we are making an impact on the lives of people around the world."

The new strategy focuses on six areas: enhancing growth to reduce poverty; promoting sustainable agriculture; boosting research on climate change; improving health treatments and systems; tackling "challenging" governance problems, and meeting future challenges and opportunities.

Its promise of additional funds for science communication includes a commitment to create a service that will bring together DFID's research results with the best of other organisations.

Specific objectives of the research strategy include:

  • striking a balance between creating new knowledge and technology, and putting this, and existing knowledge and technology, into use;
  • ensuring that research makes an impact on policymakers;
  • encouraging stronger links between national, regional and global research efforts, ensuring their relevance to the priorities of developing countries, and increasing their impact on poverty reduction;
  • increasing support for developing countries looking to strengthen their capability to carry out and use research.

DFID promises to examine how developing countries can make the most of new and emerging technologies. Alexander said that although these are often developed primarily for industrialised markets, many "could have real relevance to the needs of poor people".

These might include technologies to purify drinking water, diagnose disease, store and convert energy, and improve food processing and storage. DFID says its role is not to develop these technologies, but to help developing countries take advantage of what they may offer.

Details of how the new initiatives will be put into effect are still under discussion.

Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University, says the strategy recognises that one function of research is to reduce uncertainty over the potential applications of new and emerging technologies.

But he adds that DFID will need institutional innovations that facilitate the practical application of new knowledge.

"One possible response by DFID is to support institutions that fuse research, teaching and extension or commercialisation," says Juma.

"The attainment of the Millennium Development Goals requires an extensive and intensive application of science and technology," says Sospeter Muhongo, director of the regional office for Africa of the International Council of Scientific Unions.

"African scientists and their education and research institutions should therefore be provided with adequate and sustainable financial and research facilities to enable this to take place."

Link to full DFID research strategy 2008–2013[5MB]