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Draft proposals for the future direction of UK aid policy contain virtually no references to the crucial role of science and technology. The omission needs to be corrected.

Two years ago, Britain's minister for international development, Hilary Benn, admitted in a speech at the Royal Society in London that the United Kingdom was not doing enough to integrate science into its aid programmes.

He described science and technology as "fundamental" to alleviating poverty, and said the Department for International Development's (DFID) appointment of a chief scientist showed its determination to redress the situation (see UK minister denies lack of science in aid programmes).

Since then, various statements by the UK government have emphasised the role of science and technology in development. Perhaps the most important of these was the report of the Commission for Africa, set up by prime minister Tony Blair. It describes investment in science and technology as "imperative" for countries to climb their way out of poverty.

Despite all of this, however, in initial consultations over the launch of the new 'white paper' on UK aid policy, there has been virtually no mention of either science or technology.

Over the past two months, Benn has given a series of speeches setting out the main themes the new policy is likely to address. In these speeches — as well as in the brief consultation document framing the exercise — the word 'science' is mentioned just twice, and only in the context of climate change.

Even more revealingly, Benn did not once use the words 'research' or 'innovation'. Even the word 'knowledge' only gets one mention, in the context of health systems.

Back to the bad old days?

Are we heading back to the bad old days of not too long ago, when the development community thought science and research had nothing to do with alleviating poverty?

Cynics might argue that Benn's silence on the role of science and technology suggests this to be true. They might conclude that his reassuring words at the Royal Society two years ago were little more than an attempt to appease Britain's scientific community and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, both of which had expressed concern about the lack of support for science in UK aid efforts.

Ironically, this comes at a time when many developing countries — including some of the poorest, such as Rwanda — are realising the need to strengthen their scientific and technological capacities, and are seeking external assistance to do so.

A lack of joined up thinking?

Alternatively, those of a less cynical frame of mind might blame the silence on a different factor, namely a lack of 'joined up thinking' within DFID itself.

The department certainly remains committed to a promise it made in October 2004 to significantly increase the amount it spends on building research capacity in developing nations (see UK to boost support for research capacity building).

In addition, DFID is currently producing an eagerly-awaited strategy on science and innovation that will hopefully identify some of the practical ways in which science and technology can be more closely integrated into poverty-alleviation projects.

To judge from his earlier speeches, Benn is clearly aware of — and committed to — these initiatives. Perhaps it was a different, more sceptical set of speechwriters who prepared his more recent statements.

Certainly there is no excuse for the omission in terms of content. Many of the priorities that Benn identifies, from the need for a malaria vaccine to strategies for meeting the impacts of climate change, require a significant scientific input if they are to succeed.

Similarly, the need for a robust infrastructure, which Benn also acknowledges as essential for building a strong economy, means investing in education and research capacity as much as in roads and telecommunications.

Necessary revisions

There is still time for these messages to be taken on board by those who draw up the final version of the white paper. Indeed, the answers to many of the questions that DFID asks in its consultation document could become vehicles for stressing the importance of science and technology.

Take for example, its question: "How can the international development system be reformed so that it delivers better results for development?" One response could be that reforms should emphasise the potential benefits of science and technology at all levels of the development system.

Similarly, the question "What determines economic success and promotes economic growth in poor countries?" could be answered by saying that economic success is dependent on a strong scientific and technological infrastructure.

Equally important is the need to encourage an 'innovation systems' approach to economic growth, rather than the traditional perspective of science and technology as sources of growth in themselves (see Rethinking science aid).

Even the question "What can donors do to help build more effective states?" could be answered by pointing to the need to ensure that sound scientific information is used as the basis for government decision-making. Developing country governments are becoming aware of this need, as they face complex issues ranging from bird flu to genetically modified crops.

These are just some of the ways that science and technology should be brought back into DFID's development strategy, and must be reflected in the forthcoming white paper.

Science and technology have at times failed to deliver on promises made on their behalf, and this might explain why development agencies are disenchanted with the investing in the sector. But the potential contributions of science and technology cannot be overstated and should not be ignored.

If science remains absent from the final version of the white paper, DFID will be undoing much of the positive work done in recent months, both inside and outside the department, to increase the status of science and technology in development efforts.

Ignoring these trends would also be doing a disservice to the increasing number developing world governments that are displaying a more enlightened attitude by seeking to follow a knowledge-based path to development. And that would really be a lost opportunity.

David Dickson

DFID (one of the main funders of SciDev.Net), is seeking comments on the content of its new white paper, which must be received by 7 April.

Link to DFID consultation document    [61KB]

Link to background speech by Hilary Benn