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Clubs are useful organisations, provided they genuinely meet the needs of their members. The Commonwealth Science Council is — or rather, could be — a good example.

There is something outdated about an organisation whose members are defined primarily by the fact that one member used to have control over all the others. Such, however, is the case with the British Commonwealth, the collection of former colonies that used to be known as the British Empire, including many countries in the developing world. In recent years, the Commonwealth has worked hardalthough not always successfullyto demonstrate that, as an association of nations that share a common language, there is still much that its members can benefit from. But it has been an uphill struggle, as the pressures of globalisation have imposed their own agenda on both international and regional relations between member states.

These pressures have been felt particularly strongly by one of its activities, the Commonwealth Science Council (CSC). In the past, the council has fulfilled two important  functions. Firstly, it has been a significant mechanism by which resources have been transferred from the richer membersprimarily Britain, but also Australian and Canadato support science and technology activities in the poorer members. Given that the latter include many countries whose own spending is dismally low, this support has at times proved invaluable in promoting research and other projects that might otherwise have failed to get off the ground. Secondly it has allowed these countries to share experiences and devise common solutions to the issues that they face.

More recently, however, deep questions have been asked about the relevance of the CSC’s activities to the contemporary needs of its member states. In particular, there are doubts as to whether the CSC has been sufficiently effective in responding to the most urgent needs of its poorer memberssuch as devising policies to ensure that science can contribute to social development and economic growthinstead of continuing to focus on its role as a funding agency.

A search for survival

The issues of effectiveness and relevance were both at the heart of a recent review of Commonwealth institutions carried out by an intergovernmental committee, whose verdict on the CSC was particularly harsh. With its mind focused on the threat of extinction, the Council has now embarked on a long overdue search for a viable renewal strategy.

At a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, two weeks ago, its 37 member states entrusted the task of drawing up this strategy to its executive committee. Acting as a ‘task team’ that will be jointly headed by CSC chair Ben Ngubane, South Africa’s Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, as well as his Indian counterpart, Murli Manohar Joshi, the group has been asked to develop a renewal plan that will be put to the Commonwealth Heads of State later this year. It is likely to play a determining role in discussions on whether the council should continue to exist (see Commonwealth science body seeks new lease of life).

There is a good case for it to do so. But as Ngubane himself has already indicated on several occasions, this outcome will depend heavily on the extent to which the council is prepared to embrace a new agenda that moves beyond the more traditional concerns of the scientific community. That means looking at ways of councilhelping its developing world member states to integrate science and technology with efforts to meet their needs.

Ngubane’s justification for moving the CSC in this direction is that it is a way of putting into practice some of the goals endorsed at last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development. The statement endorsed at the end of this meeting, rather grandly called the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, contained a number of paragraphs outlining the importance of science and technology in achieving development in an environmentally sustainable way. A renewed CSC, according to Ngubane, would help achieve precisely that.

The Johannesburg statement, as well as a shorter 'declaration' that is expands on, certainly provides a useful political device; it means that, whether or not they were aware of it at the time (and there is certainly plenty of evidence that they may not have been) those political leaders who signed up to the declaration have committed themselves in principle to a line of action which South Africa, in particular, is keen that they should follow. But the declaration is also something of a red herring; integrating science and technology into social and economic development is a practice that was being pursued by many developed countries long before the concept of sustainable development came into vogue.

The importance of foresight

Take, for example, the concept of technological foresight. This is a technique, developed by science policy experts in the 1980sand widely applied in Britain, for example, in the early 1990sfor drawing up maps of future technology trends. The idea is that such maps can then be used by those assigning government officials deciding on research funding priorities to ensure that there is a direct correlation with these trends. For all its limitations, 'foresight' represents a significant, and frequently successful, way of ensuring that investments in research have a high chance of producing results of direct social and economic relevance.

Sensibly, part of the vision held by Ngubane and others for a renewed science council is that it should find ways of helping to integrate foresight techniques into the science and technology policieswhere these existof its member states. And if the benefits have already been clearly demonstrated elsewhere, so, too, of course, have the dangers (particularly when foresight tries to become too specific, degenerating into a doomed attempt to pick technological winners). If the more advanced CSC members (particularly Britain) can share the benefits of their own experience, for good or ill, with other nations, everyone stands to gain.

The same is true of a related concept, the notion that science and technology must both be seen as elements in a holistic “system of innovation”. Again this is a concept that has been pioneered by the developed nations (in particular, through the work of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). And again, it is a way of thinking about such issues that is desperately needed in those countries that still cling to linear models of the relationship between science, technology and innovation that were abandoned by most advanced countries more than a decade ago.

Need for partnerships

Of course, the CSC is far from being the only organisation concerned about these issues in the developing world. As Ngubane has pointed out, it is essential for the Commonwealth body to work with others already engaged in placing technological innovation on the political agenda of such nations. These include, for example, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), many of whose members overlap with those of the CSC; hopefully a strategy can be devised by which the two organisations learn to complement, rather than compete with, each other.

Furthermore, charting a new course of action for the council will require both a determination to grasp the challenge of change from within its own secretariat, and an appropriate financial commitment from the richer members that will allow it to do this. The latter in particular has been missing in recent years as the Commonwealth has gone out of fashion as a political institution. But the moraleand thus effectivenessof the staff have both suffered as a result.

Part of the CSC’s renewal ‘task team’ will be to convince potential sources of funding that its proposed new strategy is worth investing in (Canada, for example, which left the Council in the early 1990s, could fall into this category if it can be convinced to rejoin). Given sufficient imagination and political will, however, there is no reason that a reinvigorated science council should not emerge from the process.