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Helping developing countries communicate and use science is essential to international aid and diplomacy.

The biggest single factor limiting developing countries' potential for achieving sustainable economic growth — or even attaining the Millennium Development Goals — is their ability to access and apply the fruits of modern science and technology.

This statement is more complex than it sounds. There are, for example, many political and economic obstacles to accessing science and technology. And even if access is granted, using science and technology effectively and adapting knowledge to local conditions remains challenging.

But it usefully distils one concept. We need to put capacity building that helps developing countries use science and technology at the heart of both international aid policies and broader diplomatic initiatives.

It also highlights the importance of effective science communication — crucial for bridging the gap between producing new knowledge and turning that knowledge into either practice or policy, thus significantly increasing the returns from initial investments in research.

Rising role for science

Fortunately, science communication as a development strategy is slowly making its way up the political agenda, in developed and developing countries alike.

An increasing number of aid agencies and charitable foundations, for example, now sponsor projects and programmes in this field. They include the aid agencies of Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom — each of which support SciDev.Net and other organisations such as the World Federation of Science Journalists.

It is difficult to directly demonstrate how these organisations help explicit development goals. Measurable achievements, such as lower child mortality rates or increased food production, have many contributing factors.

But it seems highly unlikely that the increasing attention decision makers have paid to science over the past decade is unrelated to the rise of 'science communication for development' initiatives, and the growing commitment to science communication within developing countries themselves.

A more plausible explanation is that those communication initiatives have helped foster recognition, in both political circles and the wider community, that policy decisions must draw on scientific evidence in fields ranging from food security to climate change.

The lure of science diplomacy

Rising interest in 'science diplomacy' — a broad term used to cover a variety of ways in which scientific and diplomatic endeavours can overlap — has encouraged this.

The US administration, for example, is actively promoting science diplomacy as a central component of its strategy for forging links with Muslim countries, such as Indonesia.

This approach has its limits. As became clear at a recent meeting at Wilton Park in the United Kingdom, putting too much trust either in science to drive diplomatic negotiations — for example, over climate change — or in discussions between scientists as a substitute for such negotiations, risks over-stating the status of science.

Yet there is a role for robust scientific evidence to inform policy decisions at all levels, from community politics up to international diplomatic negotiations. The more solid the reasoning behind such decisions, the more likely they are to achieve their desired objective.

Crucial alliance

And that again underlines the importance of science communication. The key word here is 'inform'. Informing policy decisions means ensuring that all stakeholders have access to relevant scientific information, in a form they can easily understand — in other words, to well-communicated science.

Good science communication is not a public relations exercise. Its purpose is not — or shouldn't be — to boost the profile of those who do, or pay for, the research.

Rather, it should put scientific knowledge into the hands of those who can use it, (including, in areas such as nuclear weapons or genetically modified crops, regulators who ensure that the science involved is used responsibly). And, by doing so, ensure the money spent on generating research secures greater 'bang for the buck'.

Seen from this angle, science, communication and diplomacy can form an important alliance, particularly in the context of development aid. Putting this alliance into effect is not easy. But it is essential if the goals of sustainable economic growth and social development are to be achieved across the developing world.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

Watch a video report on a discussion meeting on 'Science communication for development', organised by SciDev.Net and held at the Commonwealth Foundation in London earlier this year.