Investing in science: a cautionary tale

Science for development will require more than just financial investment Copyright: Morguefile

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A growing consensus on the need for more science and technology in development policies must not lead to excessive expectations.

Last week (13–15 February), a meeting hosted by the World Bank in Washington gathered over 300 government ministers, policy advisers, scientists and representatives of nongovernmental organisations from developing countries. They were there to discuss how science, technology and innovation can best be harnessed to support sustainable growth and reduce global poverty.

The meeting represented an important shift in the World Bank’s lending priorities. For more than two decades, the need for developing countries to build their scientific and technological capacity remained overshadowed by other goals, including more direct attacks on poverty. But science is now returning to the fore.

The bank’s new president, Paul Wolfowitz, said that science and technology (S&T) are essential to the UN Millennium Development Goals. He urged developing countries to include support for science, however modest, in their spending plans (see Invest in science, says World Bank president).

Wolfowitz’s support for science is welcome. But his caution is also justified. For it would be dangerous to place expectations too high.

Rash investments could create a backlash similar to that which occurred 25 years ago, after the promises made for S&T during the 1960s and 1970s failed to materialise. The sight of expensive laboratories and equipment lying unused across the developing world led to disenchantment among donors, many of whom felt their investments had been wasted.

More than just investment

The current danger lies in promoting policies that see S&T as drivers of social progress and economic development, rather than components of innovation programmes in which other factors — from regulatory policy to education and training — are just as important.

The scientific community is particularly prone to this one-dimensional approach. Arguing that heavy investment in research and development is enough to promote economic growth naturally appeals to those keen to see scientific laboratories flourish across the developing world.

But experience has shown that such investment is only part of the solution. The real challenge lies in embedding science in all spheres of government policy, and introducing educational, regulatory and fiscal measures to enable innovation to flourish across the economy.

Until this happens, demands for more money for science will inevitably be seen as little more than self-interested pleading from the scientific community.

Venancio Massingue, a former university professor who is now Mozambique’s S&T minister, admitted to feeling embarrassed during cabinet meetings because his bids for increased research funding had to compete with those seeking more money for social services such as food and basic medical care.

Attempts to secure support for S&T capacity building also risk separation from a country’s main economic policies. Requests for greater support at the World Bank’s meeting — like those at the African Union summit last month — came mostly from S&T ministers, rather than the finance ministers holding the purse-strings.

Scientific and political support

Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University, suggested that it was often lawyers who, given their role in designing governmental administrative arrangements, have had the biggest impact on innovation policies in recent years.

This is not to say that scientists should sit quietly on the sidelines. Their enthusiasm and commitment is essential for alerting politicians to the need for science in social and economic programmes. And their direct involvement, both as advisers and practitioners, is equally important in ensuring that this is done effectively.

But at the end of the day, as many speakers at the meeting emphasised, it is political will that counts most.

Some of this must come from the top. Countries whose leaders are committed to building science and technology capacity, and integrating it into effective innovation systems, are more likely to succeed than those with leaders who simply rely on importing foreign technology.

But equally important is a bottom-up approach that encourages, for example, the integration of scientific research into Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers — the documents required by funding agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for countries to receive debt relief. Some African countries, such as Mozambique, have begun to do this.

Without such an embedded commitment, as well as popular support, today’s enthusiasm for science and technology investment risks becoming just another passing fashion.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net