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Achieving even the relatively modest goals agreed at the World Summit last week will require the firm application of science and technology. A major effort is now required to ensure this happens.

In the end, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) turned out as many had anticipated. Modest achievements — for example, agreeing target dates for significant improvements in sanitation for the world's poor, or protection of the world's fisheries — were sufficient for the organisers to avoid the political disaster some had feared. At the same time, the dogged opposition of the United States to anything that might challenge its economic interests ensured that that those hoping for dramatic progress on issues such as renewable energy were disappointed.

What did emerge in Johannesburg was a set of solid commitments on a range of development-related issues. On their own, these will not stir up the degree of political enthusiasm and commitment necessary if the grand ambitions in the meeting's final 'political declaration' are to be met. But they do, at least, provide for political endorsement of a solid conceptual framework linking the three pillars of sustainable development — the social, the economic and the environmental — within which such ambitions can, in principle, be achieved.

The task ahead is to draw up practical strategies for doing so. Scientists and technologists have a central task in ensuring that this happens. The WSSD underscored the need for major efforts in five separate areas, namely water, energy, health, agricultural production and biodiversity (known collectively as WEHAB).

Science and technology cannot single-handedly solve the problems currently faced in each of these fields. Indeed, in some cases, the unconsidered application of the products of Western science and technology (such as the excessive use of chemical fertilisers) has certainly increased the size of the challenge. But neither can the problems be solved without them. This is the message that still has to be communicated to a broader range of politicians and decision-makers.

Political endorsement of science

Few of those gathered in Johannesburg disputed this conclusion. At the policy level, it is reflected in paragraph 17 of the final political declaration, endorsed unanimously by all UN member states on the last day of the summit. This talks about the need to work together "to use modern technology to bring about development, and make sure that there is technology transfer, human resource development, education and training to banish forever underdevelopment."

The other document to emerge from the summit, the so-called 'implementation strategy' fleshes out in greater detail how this might be achieved. It underlines the need, for example, "to enhance local, national, subregional and regional centres of excellence for education, research and training in order to strengthen the knowledge capacity of developing countries". This represents a minor victory that took place at the fourth Preparatory Committee meeting in Bali in April over the United States, which was hesitant to endorse any language that even hinted at the creation of new institutions and the long-term commitments that go with them.

Lively discussions during the Science Forum that took place in parallel to the WSSD reflected the high level of grassroots enthusiasm that exists in parts of the scientific and technological communities for moving in this direction. And a number of presentations to the forum described various efforts that are already underway to put political commitments into practice.

Plans are already on the drawing board, for example, for a centre of excellence in mathematics, to be established in South Africa, that would help stimulate moves to raise the general level of mathematical skills across the continent (see Top maths institute to stem Africa's brain drain).

The European Union has already indicated its readiness to invest significant funding in research for sustainable development under its Sixth Framework Programme, some of which is likely to be channelled into the promotion of networks of centres of excellence, particularly in Africa (see Summit boosts funds for science in poor nations). Thanks to the efforts of organisations such as the Third World Academy of Sciences, the importance of educational systems recognising the critical importance of capacity building in science and technology was placed firmly on the political agenda. And the United States has shown none of the intransigence displayed on energy and climate issues when it came to supporting the fight against infectious diseases, especially AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The challenges ahead

There is still a vast distance to go, however, between bridging the gap between the scale of the needs that exist, and the level of resources being committed by the industrialised nations in particular to meet these needs. There was no discussion in Johannesburg, for example, of the failure of the international community to respond to proposals made earlier this year by the World Health Organisation's Commission on Macroeonomics and Health for a new global health research fund.

The money involved — US$1.5 billion — is relatively minor compared, for example, to spending on research into the diseases of affluent nations by the US National Institutes of Health alone. But it would represent almost a doubling of the resources currently committed to research into the needs of the poorer part of the world. And the same can be said of the need for research into agriculture. Politically, the WSSD showed little political enthusiasm for taking on even modest goals of this type.

So what is now needed? At the top of the agenda must be a determined strategy to address the question of how to build political support for the massive capacity-building exercise in science and technology that is required. The World Conference on Science in Budapest three years ago failed, for various reasons, to achieve this. But the need is still there, and is more urgent than ever.

Related to this remains the need to ensure that the scientific community responds much more seriously than it has up to now to the practical challenges ahead if sustainable development is to be achieved. This will not be done by signing up to a worthy-sounding 'new social contract' between science and society, however well-intentioned. Rather it requires listening, consultation and imaginative partnerships.

One key to both of these, as has been stressed frequently on this website, is the requirement for more effective communication about science and technology issues. Communicating to decision-makers the value of science and technology in securing sustainable development, and the urgency of making the necessary resources available to ensure that this value reached, is one aspect. Communicating the needs, desires — and concerns — of civil society to the research community as it determines its strategy for moving forward is another.

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