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Recent achievements — and controversies — in genomics underline how science policies that draw a sharp division between basic and applied research are increasingly outdated.

Should developing countries engage in basic research? The question has been contentious for many years. Supporters argue that a national cadre of basic scientists is an essential prerequisite for any modern nation, certainly any nation that seeks to become technologically competitive in a globalised economy. Their opponents reply that basic research is a luxury best left to the rich nations, and that rapid technological growth can be achieved most cost-effectively through licensing deals and the purchase of know-how from abroad.

In the post-colonial period, it was the first argument that tended to hold sway as newly independent nations sought to reproduce the educational traditions of their previous masters. But an overproduction of PhDs in subjects lacking any roots in social demand created a backlash. Today, funding for research tends to focus on subjects that are considered useful, not just interesting. This, however, has its own dangers, which are ignored at peril.

As a dispute over the publication of the rice genome indicates graphically, the emerging science of genomics — indeed of much modern genetics — signals a paradigm shift that is taking place at the heart of modern science, with profound implications for developed and developing countries alike.

Three aspects of this shift are particularly striking. The first is the way that biology in general, and genetics in particular, has taken over as the defining science of the contemporary era. In a shift that resonates with the ending of the Cold War, it has displaced physics (though not mathematics) from the centre of the scientific pantheon.

The second, related, aspect is the fact that in many areas of modern science, the boundary between basic and applied research has become so blurred as to be virtually meaningless. A major sequencing effort, whether of the human, rice or malaria genome, is a significant achievement that has profound scientific and commercial consequences simultaneously. Indeed, one of the surprising things about the 'races' to complete at least the first two of these is that there should be a race at all. After all, under the old paradigm, fierce competition between researchers took place within private or corporate laboratories, each playing according to their own set of rules, but seldom between the two.

And this leads to the third aspect, namely that basic science has become a contested terrain in its own right. The different social, economic and political stakeholders with an interest in the applications of such research each have also an interest — often conflicting — in the way that it is conducted. Witness the public controversies over the ethics of patenting gene sequences. Or over the terms of access to genome data (see Geneticists call for public access to rice genome). Or even the way that religious commitments are determining US policy on the conduct of embryonic stem cell research.

Developing countries cannot ignore such controversies, even if most of these are, at least in substance, currently focussed in the developed nations. For, to the extent that those in such countries stand as much to gain as the rest of the world from the research in question, they need to be able to play a meaningful role as stakeholders in the debates that this research generates (see Genomics firm aims to fill Asian gene gap).

All the more reason, therefore, to welcome initiatives such as the decision to create a lobby group in Africa dedicated to raising awareness among political leaders of the importance of genomics (see New forum to lobby for genomics in Africa). African researchers need to become established partners, not just observers and recipients, in the genomic revolution. Hopefully the new group will help achieve this.

But partnership brings with it responsibilities. This means that African countries — like those in the rest of the world — must also remain sensitised to the way that the genomics revolution not only contains enormous technical and economic possibilities, but also carries massive social and ethical implications. The political challenge is to find a way of balancing the two sides of the equation, refusing to allow one to become dominated by the other, and developing solutions that are transparent, democratic and fair.

Achieving that — a task that lies at the heart of the new paradigm of modern science — will be no mean feat. One thing it will do, however, is to bring basic science back into the development picture. But this time it will be neither a colonial left-over nor an expensive indulgence; rather, it will, as the genomics revolution indicates, become a central element in sustainable development strategies worldwide.

© SciDev.Net 2002

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