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One of Britain’s leading engineering researchers has urged scientists in developing countries to stop being driven by the need for recognition by Nobel Prizes, and to start focusing their efforts on less glamorous but crucial research intended to address domestic problems.

The call was made on Monday to delegates from 30 countries attending the 21st meeting of the Commonwealth Science Council, which is taking place this week in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It came from Kumar Bhattacharryya, leader of the Warwick Manufacturing Group, which he created at the UK University of Warwick more than 20 years ago to close the gulf between the academic engineering knowledge base and UK industry.

He pointed out that the developing world has wasted many years because academic research programmes and their manufacturing export base often lived in “splendid isolation” from each other.

Bhattacharryya, who has long been a senior advisor on science and technology policy to the British government, called on Africa and other developing nations to invest in science, technology and innovation — and not just rely on cheap labour and unpredictable foreign aid.

Policies for science, technology and innovation should be revamped to link directly to indigenous economies, he said. “Successful active science, technology and innovation policies should no longer be a privilege kept by developed countries,” and research budgets in developing countries should be spent on solving domestic problems in a sustainable way.

Universities should become more “outward facing”, Bhattacharryya said, dedicating a proportion of their research towards market needs. And more should be done to prevent the loss of a country’s expertise through brain drain caused by foreign ‘exchange’ programmes that merely established cheap outposts for developed countries.

The Johannesburg meeting is being hosted by South Africa’s Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, Ben Ngubane, as chairperson of the CSC. It has in particular been focussing on a renewal plan for the CSC intended to further revitalise science and technology in the Commonwealth.

Ngubane has been responsible for steering the development of this renewal plan, as recommended by an intergovernmental committee set up by the Commonwealth Heads of Government to review the mandates of Commonwealth organisations.

The renewal plan will seek to realign the CSC with the key themes and objectives of sustainable development adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year.

Link to statement on CSC meeting by the South African Department of Science and Technology

Link to full text of Kumar Bhattacharryya's speech

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