Alberts: “Let’s learn more from mistakes”

Bruce Alberts: US science envoy

When both countries and aid agencies are asked to talk about the “science for development” projects that they have supported, they frequently tend to focus on those that have been successful.

Bruce Alberts, editor of Science magazine and a former president of the US National Academy of Sciences, wants to change this. He argues that there is often as much to learn from projects that have failed as from those that have succeeded.

“Let’s make a science out of sustainable development,” he told the second day of the science diplomacy meeting at Wilton House in Sussex, UK. “We must objectively learn from experiments in this area, and build up an evidence-based science of what works where – and why.”

Alberts spent much of his time at the academy promoting the need for more science in developing countries. He is now a special envoy to the US administration on scientific issues, putting him at the forefront of implementing the country’s science diplomacy strategy.

Alberts has recently been closely engaged, for example, in negotiating a set of agreements with the government of Indonesia on various aspects of scientific cooperation with the United States.

“Vision is important but we also need effective strategies,” he said.

“Nearly all projects [in applying science to development] claim to be successes, which means that the lessons learned from failure are thereby lost.”

It was understandable that governments and development agencies should be keen to demonstrate a good track record. But the result was that “we keep on making the same mistake over and over.”

Alberts admitted that some organisations, such as the World Bank, do evaluate projects that have failed. “But the reports disappear down a black hole and people never see them. It is a great waste.”

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

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