How bureaucracy undermines Third World science

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Excessive bureaucracy that protects outdated power structures deprives science in many developing countries of much of its potential vitality. The issue can no longer be ignored.

Scientists in all developing countries face numerous hurdles in carrying out effective research. Many of these — such as low salaries and inadequate laboratory equipment — can legitimately be blamed on the relative poverty of their governments and the lack of attention given by foreign aid agencies to high-level research.

At the same time, however, some of the hurdles remain the responsibility of their own governments. The level of bureaucracy is one such obstacle. For example, in some developing countries, university academics, being state employees, require government permission to attend foreign conferences — a process that can take weeks, even if no funding implications are involved.

Part of this problem lies in the excessive paperwork that has to be submitted to justify the purchase of equipment or other expenditure on laboratory supplies. The numerous levels of permissions required to authorise the slightest individual action also frequently contributes to making bureaucracy more cumbersome than it needs to be.

This issue was highlighted last week by the Egyptian-born Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Ahmed Zewail. Addressing the general meeting of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) in New Delhi, Zewail spoke openly of the way in which excessive centralisation and bureaucracy continues to have a damaging effect on the vitality of science in developing countries. He compared this to the relative freedom that he now enjoys as a researcher in California (see 'Nobel laureate slams Third World bureaucracy').

A necessary evil …

Of course, there are many circumstances in which bureaucracy is a necessary evil. An efficiently run state requires an effective way of collecting decisions about the activities for which it is responsible, as well as a way of ensuring that public funds are used for the purposes to which they have been allocated. It could also be argued that many developing countries have inherited colonial bureaucracies that have created a stable basis for economic expansion and social development. Furthermore, the task of reducing bureaucracy while maintaining accountability is a complex one (as the United States is currently experiencing with its corporate sector scandals). While excessive control can strangle and enterprise, loosening the control too far has the opposite danger of creating a vulnerability to mismanagement, abuse and, ultimately, fraud.

…but unnecessary hurdles

But some of the problems that bureaucracy creates are unnecessary. The first problem comes when form filling turns almost into an end in itself. How many times have you filled in a form with information that you suspect no one will ever need or use? Yet those requesting such information are incapable of explaining why it is necessary to provide it.

The more serious problem, of course, is when bureaucracy becomes a substitute for good governance. Indeed, as in the Soviet Union before the fall of communism, excessive bureaucracy can often become a shield that protects bad decisions from public scrutiny, preserving the power of political groups that have much to fear from a transparent decision-making process.

Where excessive bureaucracy has such political roots, there is little that scientists can do — at least not on their own. All sectors of society must engage in the broader movement towards greater democratisation and openness in political decision-making. One of the greatest enemies of excessive bureaucracy, for example, is a free press (again an area in which the experience of the former Soviet Union has much to demonstrate).

Similarly there is little that scientists can do alone to counteract another side-effect of excessive bureaucracy, namely petty corruption. In many countries, such corruption oils the wheels of bureaucracy, ensuring that in practice decisions get taken, permissions are granted, and that the system does not seize up. But this is all at a price that cannot be healthy for any society that seeks to develop effective and transparent governance.

The task for scientists

What scientists can do, of course, is to identify and publicly highlight the problems created by excessive bureaucracy. They can underline, for example, the threat that excessively bureaucratic forms of decision-making can present to good science, which requires that decisions about the distribution of funds are flexible enough to ensure that funding is focused on areas where it can be spent most effectively. Ultimately the quality of the research that is produced should be judged by scientific peers, not by the number of forms that have been completed.

This message needs to be conveyed to national governments. As Zewail said in his address, developing countries cannot blame the developed world for all their problems. Rather it is necessary for them to "put their own house in order" if they are keen to reap the benefits that modern science and technology have to offer.

The message also needs to be taken more seriously than it appears to be by bodies such as TWAS. After Zewail's presentation last week, many participants privately expressed their agreement with his criticisms. But there was no open discussion about the issues that he raised, even though the meeting would have been an ideal opportunity to analyse the depth of the problem and explore some possible solutions.

Addressing the need for change

The unspoken concern, of course, is that the way in which bureaucracies support power structures can, unless care is taken, operate just as easily within the scientific community as it does in the world outside. Certainly one of the most pressing needs in many developing countries is to free bright young researchers from the intellectual shackles of their academic seniors. Where bureaucracy (among other things) prevents this from happening, genuine scientific creativity will be stifled.

Excessive 'red tape', as it is known, is a problem in all nations. Talk to an American or a British researcher and the complaints will, in principle, be similar to those of a scientific colleague from Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Some countries, however, have been quicker than others to recognise the extent to which it can undermine a healthy science base, and have taken action to reduce its impact.

Hopefully panels such as the InterAcademy Council, which is currently drawing up a report on science capacity building in the developing world, will identify excessive bureaucracy as one of the hurdles that needs to be addressed. It may take political courage to do so. But it would be a valuable service, as important, in many ways, as drawing attention to the need for extra funding for science.

© SciDev.Net 2002