“Forget about using science to achieve political goals; it doesn’t even work.”
That was the stark message delivered by Chris Whitty (right), recently appointed head of research at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), to the two-day meeting taking place in London this week on “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy“.
Whitty, a malaria specialist who was appointed in January (see UK’s DFID appoints research chief) and emphasised that he was speaking in a personal rather than an official capacity, delivered what he described as a “hymn of praise” for the role of science in international development.
He listed some of the “wonderful things” that science was capable of doing to help to mitigate the effects of poverty around the world, while adding that “it has been massively overlooked by those involved in international development for many years”.
But he was scornful of efforts to use scientific and technical assistance to achieve broader political goals such as increasing influence or even contributing to social stability, both of which he included among “less good reasons” to engage in science in developing countries.
“They are less good because they don’t work,” he said.
One idea he criticised was that training scientists was a valuable way of buying influence with a country’s scientific community. The historical record showed that highly trained scientists often left their countries of origin to continue their work overseas.
“Another idea is that science can promote social stability,” said Whitty. “The evidence is the reverse. Science can be a transformative influence. But transformation can lead to turbulence, which itself can lead to conflict.”
Even the idea that science should be promoted because it was an unalloyed good had its problems. “This is clearly not correct. For example, there is some good south-south collaboration on nuclear issues that does not bring joy to the rest of the world.” No names were mentioned; but no names were needed.
The reason for engaging in science in developing countries should have a single, clear, purpose, he suggested: “to transform the lives of the poor”. A simple enough message. But one that placed a large question mark over the desirability of seeking to use science for diplomatic ends, particularly in the context of relationships with the developing world.
David Dickson, SciDev.Net.