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The British government has come under fire from the country's top scientific organisation for failing to make proper use of science in its development aid programmes.

The criticism has come from the Royal Society in comments on the activities of the Department for International Development (DFID) submitted to a parliamentary committee that is currently investigating how science fits into British aid efforts.

The scientists' statement describes the department's current efforts in this area as being "short-term and uncoordinated", and is particularly critical of the lack of strategic thinking about the potential contribution of basic scientific research.

For example, it says, although DFID was prepared to provide practical advice to inhabitants of the island of Montserrat about how to deal with the impact of imminent volcanic eruptions, it has shown little interest in long-term research carried out by the Natural Environment Research Council into a deeper understanding of the behaviour of the island's volcano.

However, DFID has defended its position by arguing that its main activities are focused on its principal mission, namely the relief of poverty, particularly in developing countries. "We only fund science contributing to that end," a spokesman has said.

Furthermore, Paul Spray, head of research at DFID, says that a review conducted in 2002 by external consultants suggested that, in comparison to spending on research by development agencies in other countries, "DFID is one of the leaders".

The comments from the Royal Society were made in its submission to the House of Common’s Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, which is currently looking at how research, technology and innovation affect the government's development policies and practices  (see UK parliament probes role of science in development).

The society has used the opportunity to compile a list of grievances against what it feels to be an undervaluing of the potential contribution of science to British development aid programmes.

It criticises DFID, for example, for failing to appoint a chief scientist, as all other government departments have been required to do following the reorganisation of British science at the beginning of the 1990s.

It claims that DFID suffers from inadequate in-house scientific expertise" and an "inadequate relationship" with UK research councils and government agencies. "To develop capacity in this area, the co-ordination of the use of science research across government organisations needs to be strengthened."

While praising the support given by the British government to what it describes as "a number of very limited funded exchange programmes", it continues that the United Kingdom "is not providing adequate resources for scientific training and capacity building in poorer countries".

And it takes a swipe at those who demand the rigid application of legislation on intellectual property rights by countries facing food insecurity, pandemic diseases and other major problems as an "absurd use of scarce economic, political and social resources".

"We support DFID's aim and associated objectives to eliminate poverty in poorer countries," says the society. "However by concentrating on small-scale, highly specific projects, long-term and/or underpinning scientific research are often neglected."

But when asked at a meeting of the committee on Monday (12 January) whether DFID was forced to make a compromise between long-term and short-term goals, Spray said, "Our main criteria is always the impact of the poor. Sometimes that will be long-term, and sometimes it will be quite quick."

"We recognise … the importance of science and technology," he said, adding that DFID aimed to try to facilitate access of the poor to science and technology.

DFID officials point out that the department currently has almost 500 scientists and professional advisers working for it in the United Kingdom and overseas, and is currently increasing resources for the commissioning, monitoring and dissemination of relevant scientific research.

"The absolute number of professionally qualified staff in DFID [including scientists] has been going up," said Spray.

Asked whether there should be a separate strand of funding to build up science and technology research capacities in developing countries, Jim Harvey, head of rural livelihoods at DFID, replied: "I think there is an argument for it, but it is something that will come out in the wash."

 "I don't think it's something for DFID alone," Harvey added, citing the World Bank as an organisation that should also be involved.

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