Six years ago, we ran a provocative editorial asking “Does the World Bank really care about science“. This pointed to the glaring gap between the bank’s rhetorical commitment to supporting science in the interests of development, and the lack of substantial evidence that this commitment was reflected in its lending policies.
Most revealing was the continuation of a policy introduced in the 1980s of refusing to grant loans to support the growth of higher education, on the grounds that boosting primary education was the most effective way of tackling poverty.
Since then, the short-sightedness of this approach has been acknowledged. Today the bank is at the forefront of efforts to stimulate a commitment by governments across the developing world in science, technology and innovation.
And following a widely attended forum in Washington in February 2007 on the broad need for such a commitment, it is now turning its attention to a key aspect: capacity-building partnerships.
How to promote these effectively will be the focus of a second forum, to be held provisionally at the bank’s headquarters in Washington DC, in December this year.
“The objective of such partnerships is to create a bridge between those who already have the capacity, and those who need to build their own capacity,” Al Watkins, co-ordinator for science, technology and innovation at the bank, and the leading force behind the 2007 forum, told the Royal Society meeting.
“Country after country has been increasing support for science in the last few years,” said Watkins. “Higher education is booming in these countries, which is a good thing; it is becoming clear that the route out of poverty is through tertiary education, and particularly through science and through engineering.”
“But where is the capacity going to come from to meet this demand? In the universities, for example, there is a large number of staff vacancies and faculty numbers are shrinking. It is a very serious issue.”
Watkins’ goal with the new forum is to stimulate a global discussion on the steps needed to build capacity in science and technology – and, in particular, to do this by establishing active partnerships between institutions in developed and developing countries.
He is keen to demonstrate that capacity building is not limited to increasing investment in research and development. “For many countries, that is not the critical missing ingredient,” he says.
“There is already a wealth of knowledge out there. The developed world already knows how to solve many of the problems facing developing countries. The problem is that that knowledge is not being transferred to such countries, and that they do not have the capacity to adapt it and diffuse it for local use.”
Watkins’ message received a cool welcome from those in the scientific community who argue that investment in research and development should be the top priority. Nor did he mention the phrase “science diplomacy” – the nominal focus of the Royal Society meeting.
But others welcomed the clear signal that, in the modern world, building the capacity to absorb (and therefore use) science effectively can be just as important as building the capacity to produce it. The real challenge is to confront the mechanisms for achieving this – and the barriers that prevent it from happening.
David Dickson, SciDev.Net