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Britain's overseas aid programmes are in need of a sweeping cultural change that places science and technology at their centre, according to a group of members of the UK parliament.

Such a move should be supported by the creation of a cross–cutting Development Sciences Research Board to award research grants for development-related sciences to UK–based institutions, with an initial budget of approximately £100 million a year

And Britain should also take an international lead — for example, through its Commission for Africa, as well as its forthcoming presidencies of both the G8 and European Union — in calling for an international science and technology capacity building strategy, supported by the necessary resources.

The recommendations are made in the report published today (26 October) of an inquiry by the House of Commons science and technology committee into the use of science by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in its aid programmes.

"We've taken a long hard look at DFID and there's no escaping the fact that DFID's use of science and research has not been up to scratch," says Ian Gibson, chair of the committee.

Although the committee is highly critical of many aspects of the work of DFID — and in particular, its lack of focus on science in recent years — it endorses recent moves by the department to correct this situation.

For example, the report welcomes the department's imminent decision to appoint a chief scientific advisor – whom it suggests should be "a natural scientist with extensive development expertise" — as well as DFID's recent announcement that it plans to increase support for science capacity building in developing countries (see UK to boost support for research capacity building and UK to appoint 'chief development scientist').

Nevertheless, the committee's report remains critical of DFID's current approaches, claiming that it has found during its inquiry "clear deficiencies in its approach to science, technology and research."

"DFID staff need to recognise the cross-cutting, underpinning qualities of science and technology and the contribution that they can make to international development: science should play a far greater role in influencing DFID policy development than has been the case so far," says the report.

"In addition, DFID's failure to fully appreciate the value of research has sometimes undermined its ability to undertake evidence–based policy making. Surmounting these difficulties will require a change in culture, not just a change in policy."

The committee expresses concern that the ability of science, technology and research to contribute to progress towards the Millennium Development Goals "is being hampered by the Poverty Reduction Strategy process, as currently implemented".

It also argues that DFID "has given insufficient consideration to how best to help developing countries identify their requirements for scientific and technological advice and research, and how to ensure that science, technology and research are represented appropriately in developing countries' Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers".

Given that the aid agencies country office staff are unlikely to have the full range of technical expertise or experience required to supply effective independent advice, the report suggests that DFID should work together with other donors to develop specific guidance on best practice in this area.

But it says that it is not yet convinced that DFID's acknowledgment of the importance of science, technology and research for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals have been translated into policy or practice.

"We remain concerned that technology–intensive areas such as infrastructure, energy, water and sanitation are at risk of being neglected by DFID and other donors due to their omission from the headline Millennium Development Goals.

The committee suggests that a high priority for DFID's new chief scientific advisor — which is currently being advertised — must be to develop a coherent policy on science, technology and research. Such a policy, it says, should encompass both the provision of scientific and technical advice to DFID and the effective use by DFID of scientific knowledge and research results to promote innovation.

Other recommendations in the report are:

  • DFID should commit significant extra funding specifically for capacity building, over and above the existing research budget, and its country offices should play a much greater role in capacity building;
  • DFID should to explore further opportunities for the provision of laboratory equipment to developing countries;
  • the UK Government should institute arrangements for direct compensation to developing countries for the loss of capacity in the relevant sector resulting from a brain drain of scientists, researchers or health professionals to the UK;
  • DFID should call for a long–term international study of the mobility of scientists and researchers from developing countries, to be carried out by the United Nations or another international agency;
  • a cross–cutting Development Sciences Research Board should be established with a mandate to award grants for development sciences research and development to UK– based institutions. (Paragraph 198).

A spokesperson for DFID said that the agency was studying the report, and would respond to the specific points made in it as soon as possible. "These criticisms largely relate to the past; we are already putting in place steps to improve our use of science, including the appointment of a Chief Scientific Advisor, as is recognised in the report," the spokesperson said.

"DFID funding for research is set to rise from £85m in 2003/4 to at least £100m in 2006/07. This puts the UK in the top three countries in the world for research spending on development."

The Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific organisation, said that the report highlighted its own concern that DFID's efforts to tackle the pressing issues facing the world’s poorest countries had been hampered by a failure to harness the full potential of science and technology.

A Royal Society spokesperson said: "This report shows that it is imperative that DFID brings science to the heart of international development policy … [and] invest in building up the science and technology capabilities of developing countries."

Improving scientific education and training and enhancing local infrastructure, such as access to information and communication technologies, were all examples of how the United Kingdom could promote economic growth out of poverty for these countries, they said.

Link to The Use of Science in UK International Development Policy

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