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“It is the knowledge and technological capacity to apply the inputs of labour, capital and resources that make modern economies work,” South Africa’s science minister, Ben Ngubane, recently told government officials preparing for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Despite this, Ngubane added that “somehow, we have failed to talk enough about the knowledge resources that can fundamentally change the future of the economies of the developing world.”

Until comparatively recently, said the minister, science and technology have not been given a central role in the sustainable development debate. “Science and technology were often seen as a source of problems relating to environmental sustainability or, in some cases, also the solution to those same problems,” he said.

Since then, however, it has become clear that there is a “crucial” relationship between science, knowledge and the availability of human capital to address the issues of sustainable development.

For example, recent work by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations indicates that most practitioners and policy-makers have undergone a significant paradigm shift in recognising the critical role of technology — and knowledge more generally — in development.

“This is a very different approach from the traditional narrow thinking of development economics and practice over the past 30 years,” Ngubane said.

It is now widely recognised, for example, that scientific and technical capacity have to be built up and maintained in countries that currently lack a minimum, critical mass of capacity in science and technology.

The minister said that the challenge to all policy-makers in the developing world was to recognise that untapped human potential represents an effective and sustainable path out of the dilemmas of under-development. “The only long-term strategy that can work is based on quality education to create human capital.”

To help achieve this, South Africa is proposing a significant shift away from a narrow concept of technology transfer to a far broader idea of “technology and knowledge partnerships”.

“Sustainable development will not be achieved unless there is a redirection of our efforts to develop the full potential of people through education: an education that must include mastery of modern technologies,” Ngubane said.

He added that few, if any, future scenarios for Africa and other parts of the developing world talk about the contributions these nations will make in science and technology for sustainable development.

“This is surely not right,” said the minister. “Perhaps we have convinced ourselves that developing countries cannot be players in the knowledge economy. I believe that this mindset needs to be broken and removed from our consciousness.”

Science and technology are often seen by policy-makers as little more than instruments with a well-defined functionality, like a light switch or a key in a lock, acting as the hand-maidens of greater goals such as economic development or improving the quality of life, he said.

“This instrumentalist approach does great damage, because it does not recognise that the potential of people trained in science and technology is far greater than the primary scientific knowledge that they hold,” Ngubane said.

“Science and technology is not a static category into which we plug machine-like robots that become instruments of production. Sustained effective science and technology investment is in fact a broad strategy to address the persistent challenge of under-development of our world.”

One way of bringing about changes is through the transformation of education. For example, science, mathematics, computing and technology should be a requirement in the education curriculum in the developing world up to matriculation level.

Furthermore, the misunderstanding of the sciences by the general public “leads to serious underestimation of their usefulness in defining better solutions”. Historically, scientifically literate communities have demonstrated the highest rates of economic development, the highest commitment to democratic values, and have created an enduring and sustainable quality of life in the communities they serve.

“I am not only talking of what is sometimes wrongly called Western or 'First World' science,” said Ngubane. “South Africa, like many countries, recognises the unique potential of the knowledge resources of our people.”

Indigenous knowledge systems, for example, hold great promise for eliminating the alienation many people feel from science and technology as it is traditionally taught. “Indigenous knowledge projects in South Africa have already shown a rich potential for better curriculum development, as well as new technological innovation.”

At the same time, information and communication technologies could play a major role in making education more attractive and accessible to communities previously excluded from high-quality education in the sciences.

“This area is being actively explored in a number of bold experiments across the developing world - but we must be even bolder still,” said the minister. “Experimentation is not enough for it does not reach a sufficient number of people.”

Another requirement is excellence in science and technology in the research and educational institutions of the developing world, Ngubane said. “Societies that are not involved in the production of new knowledge and technologies are poorly equipped to make choices about the technologies they transfer and adopt from the developed world.”

Carefully constructed programmes have to extend to strengthen institutions of higher learning. There are many great universities in the developing world, but knowledge generation in science and technology need to be strengthened considerably, while centres of excellence needed to be set up and sustained in key areas of technology.

“A science and technology based university and research infrastructure creates confidence in investors and leads to higher rates of new business start-ups within an economy,” said Ngubane.

Governments need to invest more funds in research and development, and the private sector needs to have incentives to do the same. However, in the economic structure of many developing countries this process is made more difficult when large global corporations, which earn significant revenue from developing countries, fail to carry out research and development in those countries.

“There should be an obligation for proper R&D investment, tied in some meaningful way to the revenues earned by these companies, especially when the countries themselves are investing in R&D,” Ngubane said.

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