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The developed world should make greater efforts to increase science and technological capacity in poor nations, particularly through bilateral aid projects, the chief scientific adviser to the British government, David King, said yesterday (12 September).

Speaking at the British Association's annual Festival of Science at the University of Leicester, King said that developed regions such as Europe "need to look at mechanisms for transferring knowledge from north to south".

Science education —"from the cradle onwards" — was also needed, he said, to enable developing countries to build a strong scientific base and develop and adapt sustainable technologies for themselves. "I do not believe that it is possible for a country to eradicate poverty if it does not have a strong scientific and technological base," he said.

King, who was born and educated in South Africa, pointed out that developing nations lag well behind the rest of the world in scientific capacity. Developing countries invest only 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in scientific research and development, compared to 2.3 per cent invested by OECD countries. Furthermore, the poorest countries invest "almost nothing at all".

And scientific output — for example, in terms of publications — is similarly poor. "Very little high level science activities are going on in many countries in the developing world," he said.

King described the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (see Top maths institute to stem Africa's brain drain) — which is being backed by the University of Cambridge — as a good example of how local scientific capacity could be improved.

But financial support is also necessary. "The bottom line is that funds are required to pump-prime these activities," he said. "We need to look to our own government and other governments [for resources]."

Stemming the flow of top-level scientists from developing countries was also a priority for King. "What we would like to achieve is a blockage of the current brain drain," he said. "If you keep draining off from the top you won't sustain the stream".

Key to slowing the brain drain, he said, was recognition by governments of the importance of science in policy-making. Developing nations must "exploit science, engineering and technology for local benefit," he said.

Adigun Ade Abiodun, senior special assistant to the Nigerian President on space science and technology, who was also speaking at the event, agreed that science was central to the development of poor nations. But he warned that technology transfer alone — without scientific education and local technology development — was not the solution.

"Training only allows individuals to use a concept that someone else has developed," he said. "If you have education, you have the capability to develop other ideas.”

The event, 'Science and Sustainability: Where next after Johannesburg' was organised by SciDev.Net as part of its activities on science and the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

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