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The World Bank has launched a new initiative designed to galvanise greater investment in efforts to boost the science and technology capacity of developing countries.

Bank officials aim, over the next 12 to 18 months, to identify up to 12 science- and technology-based projects that have already proved successful — for example in parts of Asia — and which might be repeated relatively easily in other countries facing similar challenges, particularly in Africa.

The bank will then seek to raise funding from donor nations for such projects, using them to demonstrate how enhancing scientific and technological capability is a vital component of social and economic development.

One option being studied is to set up a special science and technology trust fund. Another is to see whether the projects could be made eligible for funding in the next round of three-year International Development Assistance (IDA) loans, due to be decided in July.

"Our basic goal is to help countries develop their national innovation systems, in the widest sense of that term," says Al Watkins, who this week took up the new position of science and technology coordinator for the bank.

According to Watkins, this task embraces a range of activities that include improving the research and development system, strengthening linkages between universities, research institutes and industry, and promoting the development of industrial technology.

"Sadly, these topics are all too frequently ignored by the World Bank in the mistaken assumption that they are not directly related to the core mission of poverty alleviation and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals," he says.

Although the bank has provided support for science and technology in the past, particularly in countries such as India and South Korea, funding in this area was reduced in the 1980s and 1990s as the emphasis of its activities shifted to promoting economic reforms and creating what economists describe as 'a level playing field'.

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness within the bank that all countries must find ways to operate effectively within a global knowledge economy. Up to now, however, despite backing for projects such as the Millennium Science Institutes, its efforts to promote science and technology have been fragmented and lacked a clear focus.

This deficiency was highlighted in a report prepared two years ago under the auspices of the bank's chief scientist, Robert Watson, formerly chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see 'Does the World Bank care about science').

The bank's current president, James Wolfensohn, is one of those who are keen to change this and ensure that an increasing number of its activities are seen through what he describes as "a science and technology lens".

Speaking at a seminar in Washington last November, Wolfensohn suggested that there was "plenty of evidence that in a lot of areas, science and technology can make a singular contribution [to development], providing we focus on them in a more coherent way, rather than episodically in response to some stimulus, as we now tend to do".

As a first step towards improving this situation, Wolfensohn suggested taking examples of successful projects — whether funded by the bank itself or by individual governments and other agencies — and seeing the extent to which the lessons learnt from these projects could be applied elsewhere.

Wolfensohn identified agricultural research, for example, as one possible area for such experimentation. He points out that research conducted through institutions belonging to the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have been largely responsible for a massive increase in food productivity in Asia.

Using the same approach to apply science and technology to agriculture in Africa would seem to be an obvious 'quick win', particularly given that 70 per cent of people on the continent work in the agricultural sector, while productivity was currently three to four times lower than it is in Asia, he told the meeting.

"Taking the CGIAR achievements in Asia and making sure that we replicate them in Africa would seem to be a no-brainer," he said. "Indeed it sounds to me as if there are a lot of quick wins that you could pick up here without writing a long theoretical treatise on the application of science and technology to development."

More broadly, Wolfensohn suggested that bank officials should rank the countries they support into different grades, depending on their level of scientific and technological development. Having done this, "we should then think about what range of science and technology services might be offered to them," he added.

Watkins points to the example of South Korea as a country which, starting from a very low technological base, has been able to successfully build itself into a major economic power largely through promoting applications of scientific knowledge.

"South Korea started investing in knowledge not when it was rich, but when it was a poor country trying to become rich," Watkins said in an interview with SciDev.Net. "This is the major message that has to get out. Science and technology is not a luxury but a necessity for poor countries."

Describing his new role as that of a catalyst, Watkins adds that he has already found a substantial level of interest among country managers at the bank in trying to generate more activities in science- and technology-related areas.

"The latent demand is quite large," he says. "The fact that Wolfensohn has endorsed this new approach helps enormously, but country directors are already keen to know how the countries they are responsible for helping can use science and technology to become more competitive, and what they need to do to address these issues."

Wolfensohn said he was confident that, if the bank can come up with a number of proposed projects, it would probably be "very easy" to persuade donor governments to raise the necessary funds, either through a trust fund, or by agreeing that they should be eligible for IDA support. And leaders of even the poorest developing nations were also likely to be enthusiastic.

"The presidents of Madagascar and Ethiopia, for example, both of whom I have met on a recent trip to Africa, would be up for it in two minutes," he said. "They both want to boost agriculture, but they also want to diversify, strengthening their intellectual base and their research institutions."

"If we package it right, this would not be difficult to finance, not only by the bank, but also by richer country governments," Wolfensohn said. For example, if these governments could be persuaded to allocate US$100 million a year to science and technology projects out of the anticipated annual US$2 billion allocation to IDA projects, "that could do a hell of a lot for some of the smaller countries".

Link to World Bank report Strategic Approaches to Science and Technology in Development 

Link to video of presentation by James Wolfensohn on 29 November 2004