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Britain’s prime minister has put Africa at the top of his aid agenda, and science near the top of his domestic agenda. A report from the British parliament underlines the urgent need to link the two.

Next summer, the British government will have a unique opportunity to place science and technology at the heart of the international aid debate. As president of the G8 group of leading industrial nations, Britain – represented by its prime minister, Tony Blair – will be setting the agenda when the group holds its annual meeting next July. And it has already pledged to use this opportunity to focus attention on the needs of the developing world in general, and Africa in particular.

A report published last week by a committee of the UK parliament is heavily critical of Britain’s own failure in recent years to give sufficient attention to science within its activities on such issues. The report was prepared by the science and technology committee of the House of Commons. Its main thrust is that, by focusing too much on purely economic arguments about the roots of poverty – as well as direct measures to mitigate it – Britain’s aid programmes have marginalised the fundamental contribution that science can play in such efforts (see UK aid efforts ‘need a new scientific culture’).

There is already evidence that many of the committee’s criticisms have been taken on board by the Department for International Development (DFID), which administers these programmes. For example, the department announced in July that it will appoint a chief scientist to take broad-ranging responsibility for all its science-related activities. And it has also promised to increase funding for science and technology capacity building within developing countries themselves (see UK to boost support for research capacity building).

So far, however, there is little sign that the message has reached the top of the UK government. Or, in particular, that it has been taken on board by the Commission for Africa, which Blair set up last year specifically to come up with concrete proposals on how the continent can accelerate its social and economic development.

When Blair addressed members of the commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month, for example, his focus was on the two ends of the development spectrum: economic (and government) reforms, and addressing problems such as food shortages and poor health. The first draft of the commission report, due to be published shortly, is expected to hilight areas in which science can contribute directly to the latter goals – increasing agricultural productivity and boosting the fight against tropical diseases being two obvious examples. But it is anticipated that little direct attention will focus on enhancing capacity in the underlying science and technology that will make these improvements possible.

The case for supporting science

To some extent, the reluctance to make the latter a high priority is understandable. A key thrust of current development thinking is that the most successful projects are those that are given a priority by Africa countries themselves; hence, for example, a move towards the direct financing of government programmes in these countries, and away from programmes planned independently of government thinking. And at present, few African countries – particularly those with a low standard of living – place either the provision of modern research laboratories or the production (and retention) of science graduates high on their list of domestic priorities.

More cynically, investment in science is a long-term process whose measurable impact on a country’s well-being takes place well outside the timescales of most politicians. It is an article of faith that such investment will produce long-term benefits (even though it is one that both Blair and his chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, have each enthusiastically endorsed on the domestic front).

Having said that, however, there is growing support in development policy circles for the idea that success – such as achieving the Millennium Development Goals – will not be attained unless science is woven into the fabric of development thinking. That is the main message of the House of Commons report. And it is also the message that needs to be expressed, if only to help persuade African governments to take it on board, both by the Commission for Africa, and in any statement on Africa that Blair issues with the support of his G8 colleagues next year.

Need for a social dimension

Of course, it would be naïve to claim that a capacity in science and technology is a sufficient precondition of development. The House of Commons report is correct to complain that the pendulum has swung too far away from the natural sciences and engineering in Britain’s aid efforts. But it would be unfortunate if it were now to swing too far back in the opposite direction, seeking to diminish the role of the social sciences.

If there is a weakness in the report, it lies in the relatively little attention that is paid to the context in which science operates – and the important ways in which this context determines how and why science is carried out. The underlying assumptions of the ways in which science and development interact seems to be largely based on the traditional, linear model which starts with high quality science being produced in a university laboratory, then anticipates its gradual diffusion. A passing reference is made to the importance of seeing science as part of a system of innovation, and the need to produce a supportive economic environment.

An essential element of these issues is awareness of how the practice of scientists needs to respond to and reflect social needs. The report does not ignore this dimension; indeed, a visit by members of the committee to Malawi seems to have opened their eyes to ways in which scientific research needs to reflect local realities, both in its goals and in its practice. But, in its eagerness to get across the message that more support for the natural sciences is needed, it is occasionally tempted to downplay the importance of other processes (including the need to communicate information about science to decision-makers at all levels of society). What is needed is a critical appreciation of science, not a blind faith in its powers.

An essential message

None of these comments, however, detract from the simple message in the parliamentary report that DFID – along with many other members of the international aid community – has in recent years been underplaying the potential role of the natural sciences, technology and engineering in achieving its development objectives.

The reasons are complex. As the report correctly identifies, some relate to cultural trends within such agencies that have excessively favoured the social sciences, particularly over the past two decades. Others lie in models used by development economists that marginalise scientific knowledge and the capacity to produce it (for example, where these argue that it is sufficient merely to purchase advanced technologies that have been developed elsewhere).

The challenge that the science and technology committee lays down, not only for DFID but for the British government (and indeed the international community) in general, is to find new ways of injecting an awareness of the potential contributions of science and technology into all levels of development thinking. And part of this challenge is to ensure that the models used by development economists pay renewed attention to such arguments. This includes, for example, accepting that a basic capacity to handle scientific and technological information is part of the social and economic infrastructure that many now accept needs to be built up if the alleviation of poverty on a significant scale is to be achieved.

If Tony Blair – as one hopes – is genuinely keen to see that his efforts on behalf of Africa have a lasting effect, then it is essential that some statement of faith along these lines is included in any statement he makes about Africa next year.

Link to The Use of Science in UK Development Policy