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“Linking Science to Economic Development”

An informal talk before the fall meeting of the AAAS Consortium for International Programs by Professor Charles Weiss, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, given October 5, 2001 at the Headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

“It is science alone that can solve the problem of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening customs and traditions, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people. Who indeed can afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid. The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.”

Pandit Nehru’s eloquent statement of the importance of science to developing countries is inscribed on the wall of atrium in the atrium of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Delhi, India. Behind it is the faith of this great patriot, the founder of modern India, that the truth will make you free, and that if you make a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door – or in the words of the economist (Say’s Law), when it comes to science and technology, supply creates its own demand.

Implicit in this quote is what those of you who study science policy will recognize as the “push” model of scientific and technological development. Fifty years later, we know that “making friends with science” is a more complicated matter than Nehru may have realized. The problem is well summarized in the rueful comment of a laboratory director in another developing country. “You know how it is,” he told me, “if we invented electricity, the gas company would complain.” In every country, but especially in developing countries, there are powerful forces that want to keep doing things in the same old way. To return to the language of science policy, technological development will not take place if there is no demand — no “pull”– for increased understanding and for improved technology.

We have all heard the many justifications for doing scientific research in developing countries. Let me cite a few. Local science is essential to train teachers, to serve as the eyes and ears of the country on the latest technological developments, to assist with the acquisition and mastery of imported technology, to provide the scientific underpinning of regulations for environment and safety, to provide advice to government on policy issues requiring an understanding of science, to solve social problems like disease and malnutrition, to develop technologies appropriate to local conditions, to solve scientific problems unique to the country, to publicly advocate and lobby for particular policy positions requiring an understanding of science and technology, to make it possible to monitor environmental conditions, and to lay the foundations for industry and agriculture based on modern science and technology

All of these noble sentiments have validity. But as we all know, there is many an obstacle between lip and cup. And my message today is to suggest that people who do science in developing countries, and especially those scientists who collaborate with their colleagues in developing countries, should ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and whether there are obstacles that may prevent them from achieving this broader objective even if the science is successful. If they can identify such obstacles, they need not abandon the project. But they might at least ask whether steps should be undertaken at an early stage to address these obstacles, and at least to bring them to the attention of the government and the public, rather than to leave them as stumbling blocks to be dealt with later.

Let me cite a few examples. We have all visited developing countries in which brilliant science co-existed with outmoded industry, because there was no competition to spur improved performance and because innumerable bureaucratic and other obstacles lay between a creative entrepreneur and his or her dream. India before the reforms of the late 1980s was a far cry from the present software powerhouse, and was a classic example of a country that had made major investments in “science push,” but nevertheless could not overcome the lack of demand for improved technology.

As a result of these and other experiences, we now recognize that an economy built on modern technology requires not only scientists and laboratories but also a complex of institutions that are seemingly far removed from technology: reasonable physical infrastructure, functioning capital markets, modern communications and connectivity, the basic rule of law (including some measure of protection for intellectual property), reasonably sound economic policies and a business climate conducive to investment. No country is perfect in all these dimensions. But if these conditions are totally absent, science-based industry is unlikely to thrive, and research based on the promise that it will lead to such industry is almost sure to be frustrated in its larger objective. We scientists need to understand this relationship between these broad political and economic conditions and the health of the scientific enterprise.

The same argument, mutatis mutandis, applies to the other justifications that are often offered for science and for scientific collaboration. Scientific understanding of local environmental conditions, for example, is of little help if there is no local interest in environment. Wonderful skill in analytic chemistry is of little use if there is no soil analysis, no environmental monitoring, and no interest in analyzing imported chemicals. Research on local wildlife is of limited use if it is not coupled to the management of local museums and national parks.

I would suggest that we scientists need to address these broader contexts whenever possible, even as we collaborate in research. In particular, scientific advice to government requires an understanding of science, but also of the economic, political and even the cultural context that allows science to contribute to national development. It is important for those of us who work in developing countries to recognize the importance of these broad contextual factors and to support and work with those who have the skills and the responsibility to put in place these essential preconditions.

I want to conclude by describing the Biotic Exploration Fund of the International Organization of Chemical Sciences for Development, a modest project, derived from a idea of Professor Thomas Eisner of Cornell University, which helps developing countries to use bioprospecting to convert biodiversity into an economic asset for the country and especially for its indigenous peoples. I do this to illustrate the problems associated with moving from research to practical commercial application in developing countries.

This apparently simple idea involves a major change in the mentality of scientists in developing countries, and often, in the structure of the relations between their universities and private industry. To turn the pharmacological properties of a species of tropical plant or a traditional medicine into economic assets requires not only ecological and chemical research, but also an understanding of how new products are introduced onto world and local markets, including intellectual property and negotiations with multi-national corporations. It requires researchers to think of themselves as business people, working as partners with larger corporations on a commercial time table and with commercial objectives in mind. It also requires an unusual level of cooperation among local researchers, local private industry, and the local government.

To lay the foundation for this collaboration and this change in self-image, when IOCD goes to a country to assist it in bioprospecting, our first step is to convene a workshop of all the stakeholders needed to make bioprospecting possible: scientists, business people, science policy officials, intellectual property policy-makers, private business people, doctors, and traditional healers, and sets forth the basic facts of how new products are developed in such chemically based industries as pharmaceuticals, food supplements, and cosmetics. Participants soon realize that they must realize that they are part of a larger system that must work together if bioprospecting is or produce real economic results and is to benefit all parts of the society. Our workshops have helped build the base for major projects in Kenya and South Africa, and we are currently doing follow up work in Guatemala and (soon) in Uganda.