R&D policy is essential for effective science

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Boosting the role of science and technology in development requires much more than increased spending on research. A new SciDev.Net dossier provides a comprehensive introduction to the complex issues involved.

Mention the word policy, and many scientists instinctively reach for their gun. The world of the scientist and that of the policymaker (particularly the politician) are frequently seen as two conflicting environments. The first tends to be presented as dominated by a common search for scientific truths and decision-making through consensus; the second, in contrast, as characterised by half-truths, competing agendas, imperfect compromises and the creation of restrictive bureaucracies.

The reality, of course, is that science (and technology) needs policymakers as much as policymakers, particularly in the modern world, need science. The obvious reason is financial; modern science is generally accepted as a public good — i.e. an activity that benefits all members of society, rather than selective groups — and as a result something that should be supported from the public purse. For this to happen, politicians need to be persuaded of the value of science, and allocate funds accordingly in the face of many competing demands for support.

Just providing the financial and other resources that science needs to prosper, however, is not enough to ensure that it provides appropriate benefits to society in return (if it was, the former Soviet Union, with its massive but relatively unproductive investment in scientific and technological infrastructure, might still be around today).

Equally important is the need to ensure that all social institutions that interact with science and technology in some way do so in a coherent and supportive manner.

These institutions include the universities and other institutions of higher education that produce both scientific knowledge and the individuals who will turn this knowledge into socially useful products. Just as important are industrial companies — particularly small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) — where this transformation will take place.

Each of these institutions operates under its own set of rules, laws and government decisions. Any government seeking to maximise the social and economic benefits of science and technology, however, needs to ensure that, at least as far as research is concerned, these institutions operate in a coherent way. This usually means establishing a single framework for the rules, laws and decisions that have an important influence on research and development (R&D). In other words, creating an R&D policy.

A key need for Africa

The need for such coherence was highlighted last week in a report coming from a relatively unexpected direction, namely Botswana. A report conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) under the title Harnessing Science and Technology for Human Development pointed out that Botswana, one of the strongest economics in Southern Africa, possessed many of the essential components of a thriving knowledge economy.

Yet the lack of an adequate policy framework, ensuring that the different elements operated in a mutually supportive way, meant that science and technology in Botswana were not meeting their full social and economic potential (see Botswana ‘not using its potential for strong science’).

Judged in terms of resources alone, Botswana might be considered relatively well off, certainly by African standards. It has a good investment in information and communications technology, cutting-edge research equipment in its universities, and a cadre of postgraduate students who have received high-level training in foreign universities.

But according to the UNDP report, a lack of focus in funding, as well as other external factors, means that the country’s scientific institutions have “failed to deliver”, with the result that Botswana is “involved in neither science and technology innovation, nor its diffusion, in any significant manner”.

Botswana is not unique. Elsewhere in Africa, the disparate elements of a science system continue to operate, despite the decline in financial support of the past two decades. Reversing this decline has, fortunately, once again become a political priority; the need for an extra US$9.5 billion over the next ten years to promote capacity building in science and technology in African universities, for example, was identified as a priority in the recent report of the Commission for Africa, and is expected to figure in the G8 meeting of the world’s leading industrialised nations in July.

But the problem will not be solved either by throwing money at it, or by treating universities (or any other science-related institution) in an isolated way. What is required in every case is a coherent R&D policy that can both give individual actions a strategic significance, and provide such actions with a framework within which their effectiveness can be assessed.

SciDev.Net’s new dossier

This week sees the launch by SciDev.Net of a new dossier dedicated to R&D policy. Like all our dossiers, this combines a range of articles, opinions and information sources designed to provide an authoritative but accessible overview of the topic. The articles range from in-depth policy briefs, each describing a particular aspect of R&D policy and summarising its importance, to relevant news items and opinion articles that have appeared on this website. 

Particular emphasis has been placed throughout the dossier on outlining new and emerging perspectives on the issues under consideration. In particular, much attention is paid to the concept of ‘innovation systems’ (otherwise known as ‘systems of innovation’). This has recently become the dominant approach for forging R&D policy, replacing the more simplistic forms of ‘science policy’ that tended to be followed — often unsuccessfully — in the past.

The main target for this dossier will, hopefully, be those engaged in the policymaking process, whether as politicians, as government officials, as advisors, or as policy analysts. Given the contemporary pressures to develop effective R&D policy, as described above, it is essential that each of these is properly informed about the processes involved, as well as the experiences of others who are similarly engaged. Hopefully this dossier will contribute to their enlightenment.

But policy should not be left to the experts. Equally important are those who have an interest in the outcomes of policy, and who demand increasing transparency in the way that decisions are made (and accountability for the way that those decisions are subsequently implemented).

Here too, we hope that the dossier will provide valuable material for all those concerned with the effective harnessing of science and technology to the needs of developing countries. And that it will, therefore, provide a bridge between the worlds of science and politics that can be relatively easily crossed by those on either side.