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A new opinion survey shows that the European public believes that helping developing countries improve their science and technology is an important social priority. Their leaders need to listen.

There are many reasons, as has been said frequently on this website, for political leaders of advanced industrialised countries to increase their efforts to support science and technology to help developing countries. Now a new one has come along that could trump the lot: it seems there are votes in it!

As these leaders prepare to gather in Gleneagles, Scotland, early next month for their annual G8 summit, many will be thinking about how decisions they take there will be received by their voters back home. An opinion poll carried out by the European Commission suggests that on one issue — the call for a substantial increase in support for science and technology in developing countries that was made in the recent report of the Commission for Africa — they have little to worry about.

The poll, whose results were published by the commission last week, revealed that more than half of those surveyed (53 per cent) felt it was "very important" that, in ten years time, the developing world should be able to benefit from science and technology (and a further 38 per cent that it was "fairly important"). Significantly, this goal was given higher priority than either reducing economic inequalities in Europe, or integrating minorities and "other cultures" into European society.

Equally significantly, the countries that scored highest included not only those with a long record of generous aid policies (such as Norway and the Netherlands) but also smaller economies such as Ireland, Portugal and Finland. In each of the latter three, about 94 per cent of respondents said they considered science and technology either "very" or "fairly important" for developing countries.

Similar results emerged from a different poll, also carried out for the research directorate of the commission as part of the commission's Eurobarometer activities. In this, 82 per cent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "European research is important for developing countries".

Interestingly, this was significantly higher than those who attached importance to Europe's brain drain to the United States (67 per cent), or European efforts to lead the world in science and technology (67 per cent). And it was very much higher than the proportion (57 per cent) of those who felt that the European Union should be spending more on scientific research, and less on other things.

Targeting support

These results come at a crucial time. For a variety of reasons — some the result of international campaigns (such as those in favour of debt relief), others the plight of those faced with drought or civil war in Africa — the issue of global poverty is currently high in the public's consciousness.

Witness, for example, the apparent enthusiasm with which most of the world's industrialised nations are moving — largely in response to public and pressure group demand — to take significant steps towards cancelling debt, particularly for the world's poorest nations.

Or look at the massive demand for tickets for the 'Live8' concerts being organised to focus the attention of young people on the plight of the world's poor immediately prior to the G8 summit (and thus put pressure on those attending the meeting).

Both events, in their different ways, provide evidence of a groundswell of public enthusiasm for the idea that more needs to be done in this area. The challenge, of course, is how to tap into this enthusiasm effectively. And this means ensuring that the aid policies that emerge in response to it meet the genuine needs of developing countries in an effective way, without repeating past mistakes (such as over-dependency on richer nations), or making future ones.

Providing more money for science and technology is one obvious answer. The work of groups such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the Commission for Africa have already identified the need. So too has a recent statement issued by the scientific academies of the G8 nations and the Network of African Science Academies (see 'Africa cannot heal without science say G8 academies' ). The Eurobarometer survey demonstrates the enthusiasm of at least the European public that these needs should be met by their governments.

'Science/trade' as much as 'science/aid'

But this is not the only value of the survey. A closer look at its results provides much to support the idea that support for science and technology should not just concentrate on shifting the global research agenda to increase its focus on the problems facing developing countries. Equally important is the need to help these countries to help themselves.

This is reflected in the high rating given to this area by the public in countries such as Ireland, Finland and Portugal. What characterises each of these countries is that they have successfully used their membership of the European Union to secure substantial funding for building up a solid research infrastructure — particularly through successive EU framework programmes of research support.

And the public in these countries, whether aware of it or not, has benefited from a substantial increase in both economic growth and standards of living. Both have been based on success in carving out a niche in the global economy (as Finland has done with mobile telephones, or Ireland with software services). In other words, the public in these countries appear to be saying: we have benefited directly from investment in science and technology, and we feel that developing countries should be helped to do so as well.

The immediate implication is that, where aid policies are refocused to increase their attention on science and technology, this should not be done on the basis of providing further hand-outs. Rather, it requires close attention to the whole systems of innovation within the countries whose needs are being addressed (see policy briefs on innovation in SciDev.Net's dossier on research and development).

This is not an obvious concept for those who prefer their demands for extra assistance for the developing world to come in short, pithy slogans. But it is an essential one for them to appreciate nevertheless.

Other results from the Eurobarometer survey provide further points for reflection. Take, for example, the question of trust.

Among those who described themselves as "tending not to trust others", 86 per cent said that it was important to ensure that developing countries benefit from science and technology. In contrast, among those who claim that they "tend to trust others", the proportion was much higher at 93 per cent.

Perhaps another message lies here for political leaders as they prepare to leave for Gleneagles.