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One of the great contradictions of our time is tacit acceptance of the wide gap between the rhetoric of the importance of science and technology to socio-economic development, and the actual commitment — and paltry political will — to move from words to actions.

Perhaps the most compelling explanation of this gap is the view that science and technology exist within a 'zero sum paradigm', at both local and international levels. In other words, it is the belief that sharing science and technology — today's most powerful tools for promoting competition and innovation — diminishes the power of the giver, while providing undue leverage to the recipient.

History, however, tells a different story. All the current economic 'powerhouse' countries were once weak, and benefited from science and technology from the more technologically advanced nations. Initially it was Europe that acquired and shared knowledge from the old empires of China, India and Arabia. Then the United States gained from Europe, and eventually Japan from the Western industrialised countries.

In the long run, therefore, sharing scientific and technical knowledge benefits both the giver and receiver. Today, however, unnecessary barriers to the flow of scientific and technical knowledge are stifling production in countries that contain more than half of the world’s population. And one of our greatest challenges is therefore to find ways of collaborating on building meaningful science and technology partnerships among neighbours, thereby creating expanded and more vibrant markets, and enhanced socio-economic progress.

Lessons of history

The will to forge partnerships in science and technology between strong and weak economies has been more evident in the European Union and Asian trading blocs than in other parts of the world. As a result, these regions have begun to show more economic coherence and vitality than the American hemisphere, even though our region has some of the world’s most knowledge-based economies. Economic integration has long been called for in our hemisphere. But progress has been slow partly because of the great disparities in science and technology between adjacent states.

In contrast to the European and South-East Asian blocs, which are well organised and have made substantial regional investments in science and technology, we in the Americas have not yet got our act together. In particular, the stronger economies in the region have not yet seen the merits of significantly improving the general state of science and technology, even though this underpins the economic prospects of the whole hemisphere.

Yet it is difficult to see how to improve conditions within our hemisphere without enhancing science and technology at the regional level. Weak states need to be able to supply better products and services, thus increasing their purchasing power. This cannot be done without building high quality science, technology, engineering and innovation. Unfortunately, if nations already facing severe development challenges are left to do this on their own, their situation will only get worse.

Poverty now grips over half of the American hemisphere, and has become the greatest threat to the development of states in our region. Science and technology must therefore be shared in order to allow countries to build competence in areas in which they can become globally competitive.

Empty statements

These ideas are not particularly new. The 1996 Hemispheric Meeting of Ministers of Science and Technology, for example, prompted by the Inter-American Committee on Science and Technology (COMCYT), approved the ‘Cartagena Declaration and Plan of Action’.

In this document, the ministers, expressing themselves as keen to improve international cooperation in science and technology, agreed “to reduce barriers to collaboration and foster integration, to increase the demand for technology, to disseminate information on technological opportunities using new advances in information technology, and to improve communication among key science and technology organisations”.

The plan included a commitment to strengthen scientific and technological capacity, in both public and private sectors, as well as efforts to promote use of science and technology for sustainable development, and to develop and apply information technology.

Sadly, however, most of the ambitious plans were never implemented, and the situation in technology and engineering in the hemisphere has deteriorated, especially for the smaller, more economically fragile countries. Indeed economic growth in the region is now only half of the world average.

At a COMCYT meeting last April, delegates again endorsed the decisions of previous ministerial summits, and went on to adopt the conclusions and recommendations of earlier Hemispheric Policy meetings. In particular, they gave overwhelming approval to a set of recommendations based on the specific needs of the countries of the region.

Particular goals were: to promote science, technology and innovation aimed at increasing competitiveness in the productive sector in Argentina; to boost scientific and technological development in Ecuador; to encourage the popular understanding of science and technology in Brazil; and to enhance the use of science and technology for social development in Jamaica.

The conclusions from this workshop were subsequently submitted to a meeting in Lima, Peru in November, at which science ministers were asked to endorse a number of steps. These included increasing investment in science and technology in the Americas, promoting increased collaboration between countries in science and technology, and raising the general competitiveness in the productive sector.

But if adequate resources are not made available to implement these worthy commitments -- both from domestic sources, as well as regional bodies, banks and governments -- history may well repeat itself. And if we are serious about using science and technology to benefit the lives of the less fortunate, then we must acknowledge that little progress has been made over many decades. Despite many well written documents and action plans, there has been little tangible implementation of the recommendations they contained.

Action, not words, are needed

We must not mistake words for action, and we must weigh the cost of continuing to do so. Public statements are very stimulating, but need meaningful execution at the implementation. We must therefore find ways — and allocate resources — for this to happen. Action plans must be associated with strategies and protocols for implementation and evaluation, as well as resources, responsibilities and time frames. We must elaborate better partnerships, create more effective information networks, and transfer knowledge of centrality to social inclusion and economic progress in depressed areas, while creating institutional memories for learning as innovative actions take place.

Small businesses and jobs must be at the top of our agenda. Here we must admit that the market has not lived up to expectations, and that, in a world of unprecedented opulence, many still live in squalor and desperation.

Overcoming these realities must become part of the regional science and technology equation. We should not hold a fifth COMCYT meeting next year just to rehash the platitudes of previous decades. That would not contribute to the eradication of poverty, joblessness, crime, violence and expansion of the drug trade.

Indeed it would be cheaper to invest in science and technology, engineering and innovation, creating a process of create orderly development, than seeking to defeat crime and violence by punitive and increasingly costly policing measures, achieving at best chaotic change.

The effective application of knowledge is the answer to the social dislocation in our hemisphere. Such knowledge is best produced by science and technology. And, when applied with equity, decency, respect and trust, it becomes an inspiring tool for development.

The author is president of COMCYT and advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica

This article is based on an address delivered at the First Meeting of Ministers and High Authorities in Science and Technology Within the Framework of the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI), held in Lima, Peru, on 11-12 November 2004