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The collapse of trade talks in Cancún last week has thrown the spotlight on bilateral and regional agreements. Cooperation on science and technology must be at the heart of these, but needs to be handled with care.

Even some experienced diplomats were surprised at the speed of the breakdown of the latest round of world trade talks, which took place in the Mexican city of Cancún ten days ago. Before the meeting began, it was already clear that deep divisions remained between rich and poor countries, particularly over the extent to which generous agricultural subsidies in the North prevent developing-nation farmers from accessing essential markets. But while some argued that the intransigence of the developed world — particularly the United States and Europe — on this issue meant that failure at the talks was inevitable, others had still been hoping for a compromise.

When such a compromise failed to appear, recriminations were predictably loud. The rich countries accused the poor of being unrealistic in their demands; conversely the poor argued — with considerable justification — that Northern governments appeared to be more worried about the domestic concerns of voters than with establishing a fair system of world trade. Both sides agreed, however, that the failure at Cancún has shifted the focus of trade talks from the international to the regional, and even bilateral, level.

This may not be good news for the proponents of globalisation. But it could bode well for science, particularly in the developing world. It has long been recognised in science policy circles that regional collaboration represents a powerful way to build up scientific capabilities, particularly between countries that share common economic, political and geographical interests. These range from the advantages of pooling resources in high-cost fields of science, to a mutual recognition of professional scientific qualifications. Current trends in both Latin America and Africa point in this direction.

At the same time, however, regional collaboration, whatever its merits, is no substitute for genuine internationalism, whether in trade or in science. One danger is that it can encourage a form of protectionism, favouring regional deals over international ones, even when the latter are likely to be more scientifically productive. Another — related — threat is that it can generate pressures to restrict the international flow of scientists and scientific information. Both must be guarded against as the trend towards regional collaboration in science gains pace.

The European experience

Evidence of the value of such collaboration comes perhaps most clearly from Europe. In the early days of the European Union, science was not high on the political agenda (indeed there is no mention of scientific collaboration in the 1957 Treaty of Rome which established the European Community). What stimulated the change of heart was a realisation in the late 1970s that Europe could not longer rely on its traditional technological strengths, and that successfully meeting what the former French Prime Minister Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber described graphically in his book Le Défi Americain (‘The American challenge’) required, among other things, a united effort in key areas of scientific and technological research.

The result was various initiatives developed in the 1980s aimed at achieving this. Some focused on a particular sector, such as ESPRIT programme in information technology. Others, including the successive five-year Framework Programmes, have encompassed a wide range of research programmes and objectives. In both cases, the goal was to strengthen Europe’s competitive edge by harnessing the activities of research institutes across the continent. And in both cases, Europe’s success has contributed substantially not only to its current economic strength, but also to ensuring that its scientific and technological capabilities are distributed across the region, not concentrated in a few powerful countries.

If there is a downside to this, it lies in the extent to which European research has become increasingly dominated by the economic and political needs of European industry; this includes research programmes intended to meet the needs of developing countries, which have been tied far too closely to Europe’s political goals in the countries that they are intended to benefit. Regional collaboration has also encouraged protectionism in scientific data; one item that will be on the agenda of the scientific community — even if only implicitly — at the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), is the restriction that Europe-wide legislation places on access to data in fields such as meteorology and Earth sciences.

Trends in Latin American and Africa

Various parts of the world now appear keen to follow in Europe’s footsteps, at least as far as encouraging closer regional scientific collaboration is concerned. Perhaps the most obvious is Latin America. There have been many welcome indications in recent months that countries in the region are actively seeking new ways to collaborate in science and technology. In some cases, as between Argentina and Chile, the proposed collaboration is essentially bilateral (see Argentina and Chile strengthen links in science). In others, broader involvement is anticipated. Earlier this month, for example, 350 scientists and other stakeholders from Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico urged Latin American nations to join forces to develop a truly regional scientific system (see Latin American nations urged to link up on science).

In each case, such moves can only strengthen — and be strengthened by — comparable trends at the political level. For example, next January the Andean Community of Nations is scheduled to join Mercosur, the South American trade group dominated by Brazil. Such a move is widely seen as an attempt to counterbalance US influence in the region — and will certainly have been boosted by the failure of the Cancún talks.

Similar trends are taking place in Africa. Here the focus is on the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) project, launched by five major African countries (with South Africa in particular taking a key role). Actively supported by aid agencies — and some Northern governments — as a viable framework for promoting the growth of the whole region, NEPAD is already placing a strong emphasis on the role that science and technology can play in this process. Indeed, in many ways the proposals emerging from the NEPAD secretariat offer the best hope for scientific regeneration of the region.

The case for a democratic agenda

All this is to be warmly welcomed. If there is a need for caution, it is to warn that such development must not be too inward looking. There is a substantial difference between enhancing the scientific prominence — and hence self-esteem — of a region, and claiming that this is equivalent to self-sufficiency. Scientific knowledge is, by definition, international. The aim of promoting regional capacity in science and technology must be to strengthen the role of that region in a global knowledge economy, not to attempt to isolate oneself from it.

A second reason for caution is the fact that the greatest pressures for regional collaboration currently come from those with the greatest interest in globalisation, which tends to be the private sector. Care needs to be taken that, where regional collaborative research projects are encouraged, these cover the full range of social needs (including, for example, environmental safety and neglected diseases), as well as an assessment of the impact of the sciences involved on broader society.

Finally, and perhaps as a reflection of the preceding point, equal care needs to be taken that regional collaboration is not dominated by the stronger partners in the collaboration. One of the fears of smaller African countries invited to participate in NEPAD is that their interests are likely to be marginalised in projects and programmes primarily designed by — and in the interest of — the larger and stronger member states, in particular South Africa, Nigeria and Senegal. It is essential to ensure that mechanisms are developed to prevent this from happening, and that the interests of all are adequately represented in designing research programmes.

None of this is intended to discourage regional collaboration, either in research or industrial policy. But it does suggest that collaboration needs to be approached cautiously, with the appropriate checks and balances in place to ensure that the benefits are appropriate, and shared equitably. If that can be achieved, it may be one of the few silver linings to emerge from the black cloud of the failure of the Cancún talks. In turn, it can help ensure that globalisation too becomes a democratic process from which everyone benefits in an equitable fashion.

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