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The world's leading industrial countries have been urged to agree to allocate five per cent of their total spending on research and development to projects that are directly related to the needs of developing countries.

The proposal has been made by Peter Singer, director of the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto, and an advisor to the government of Canada on international research policy.

Singer told a meeting in London yesterday that the developed world had a moral responsibility to help the developing world address its many social and economic challenges by substantially increasing support for capacity building in science and technology.

Canada's prime minister, Paul Martin, keen to re-establish his country's reputation as a generous source of support for the developing world, has already taken up such a suggestion, and has recommended that his country should adopt the figure of five per cent as an official target.

Canadian officials are currently working out how such a recommendation might be put into practice. In particular, they are discussing whether it would require extra funding on top of research that is already financed by aid organisations such as the Canadian International Development Agency and the International Development Research Centre.

Singer said that he would urge Britain to make the same commitment as Canada. And he also urged British officials to use the country's presidency of the 'G8' group of industrialised countries to persuade the group to adopt this as a common goal at its annual meeting in Scotland in July.

Arthur Carty, the scientific advisor to the Canadian prime minister, admitted to the meeting that the precise definition of the five per cent — for example, whether it would include research spending by the private sector — had yet to be determined. As a result, it was not yet known how much additional funding would be required from the government to meet this target, or over what period of time.

Some have questioned the value of seeking to frame a political commitment to increase support for development-related research as a single quantified target. They have also warned that 'ring-fencing' research funds for particular purposes runs the risk of such funds being allocated to areas of relatively low scientific merit.

However, others say that even if details of what the five per cent figure means and how it will be reached, remain undefined, it represents a target that could encourage politicians to use their research and development assets to address the needs of the developing world.

Singer, for example, told the London meeting that, given the positive response that Martin's pledge has generated within the research community, attempts should be made to persuade other countries to do the same as a "moral call to arms".

And he added: "In the prime minister's own words, we in Canada are rich in science and research and have a moral obligation to share our capacity with those in desperate need."

David King, the chief scientific advisor to the British government, promised that he would look closely at whether Britain might be able to make a similar commitment, although he added that he needed more information on the precise details of the Canadian pledge.

Click here for SciDev.Net's coverage of the 31 January - 2 February meeting 'Building Science & Technology Capacity with African partners'