Alberts: “Let’s learn more from mistakes”

June 26, 2010

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

A call for “bottom up” diplomacy

June 25, 2010

Traditional medicine: a space in the diplomacy debate?

Can science diplomacy be implemented from the bottom up as well as from the “top down”, as usually favoured by scientists and policymakers alike?

Yes, according to Melissa Leach, co-director of the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies.

Leach outlined to the Wilton Park meeting a manifesto published by the STEPS centre last week that proposes a “new politics of innovation” based on a commitment to promoting “direction, distribution and diversity” in science and innovation policy — what the manifesto calls a “3D agenda”.

“We can redefine science as being about ways of knowing – including the knowledge that local people have in their own settings – and redefine diplomacy as being about establishing links between people,” she said.

Using these definitions led to a different – if somewhat unconventional – understanding of science diplomacy, she admitted.

But it was one that promised to lead to a more effective technique for bridging the gap between the world’s rich and its poor, as well as meeting the goals of sustainable development, achieving both in ways that current patterns of growth and innovation are failing to do.

“We want to create networks of networks that fit a world in which politics is about connections between actors forming around common agendas and visions for tackling global challenges,” said Leach.

Not all participants were eager to accept the way that she suggested combining a respect for traditional, indigenous knowledge with the more formal types of knowledge that make up contemporary science.

One participant, for example, called this a “deeply dangerous” idea that diplomats should avoid, on the grounds that it meant acknowledging concepts such  as the idea that eating the flesh of an animal could impart some of that animal’s qualities.

But Leach defended her position vigorously and claimed that such criticism was a “serious misreading” of her suggestion.

“We are not talking about folk wisdom that is incompatible with modern science. But we are talking about people’s science which is compatible with Western science, as well as knowledge that can challenge such science,” she said.

She pointed, for example, to areas of which she had direct experience such as forest dynamics and fire management.

But traditional knowledge should also be subject to scrutiny.

“There is scope for hybrids. The need for active deliberation and choice applies as much to traditional knowledge as it does to formal science.”

David Dickson, Director, SciDev.Net

Science diplomacy: easier said than done

June 24, 2010

The International Space Station: science diplomacy in action

Using science as a vehicle for international diplomacy has many clear attractions. Such is the case, for example, when it can be used to forge common approaches to international problems (such as climate change), or appears to offer a way around divisive political disagreements.

But, as rapidly become clear in the opening session of the three-day meeting on science diplomacy being held at Wilton Park in Sussex, UK, putting the principle of such diplomacy into action presents many practical problems, some of which SciDev.Net aired last week (see Science diplomacy must be more ambitious).

As several participants pointed out, this is particularly the case at a time when science budgets are under pressure, and scientists are being asked to justify their support from the public purse in terms of the practical contributions they make to national – rather than international – well-being.

The dilemma was highlighted by the very first speaker at the meeting, Peter Fletcher, chair of panel that seeks to co-ordinate the international activities of Britain’s research councils.

Fletcher outlined the many ways in which science can be effectively used as a diplomatic tool. He pointed out, for example, that scientific cooperation offered countries such as Britain an opportunity to establish good relations with the Muslim world in just the same way that it had helped them build bridges with China in the 1990s.

“Science is a way of building relationships, sometimes even before politicians have agreed to talk.” Fletcher said. “Researchers are used to working across national boundaries. They understand people who are thinking about the same things as they are, and are used to working together in ways in which other people are not.”

But he also pointed out that, with the UK having just announced a 25% reduction in its science budget, governments were increasingly requiring scientists to demonstrate the value of their work for those who paid for it. “How much are we prepared to commit to solving global challenges for mutual benefit [in this context]?” he asked.

Other challenges were highlighted by Vaughan Turekian, director of the Center for Science Diplomacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Washington DC

Turekian pointed out that part of the attraction of using science for diplomatic purposes was its apolitical nature. In addition, the United States, for example, was well placed to exploit the fact that its science was held in much higher regard around the world that many of its other activities.

He quoted a recent visit to Syria by a US scientific delegation that had met with President Assad – an ophthalmologist – as an example of how science diplomacy could help promote political engagement in situations where official relations were limited.

“Science cooperation has provided a wonderful way to have a dialogue on issues of mutual interest,” Turekian said.

But he also pointed to some of the barriers that prevent science diplomacy from operating effectively, such as asymmetries in scientific capabilities, economic or security concerns over providing access to certain types of key technologies, and a general lack of funding.

In the discussion that followed, it became clear that these barriers are likely to become an important focus of attention over the next two days.

Several participants, for example, pointed to the obstacles to international scientific exchange presented by the increasing restrictions on entrance visas being placed by countries such as the United States.

“It becomes so difficult for someone to get into the US that once they are there, they cannot afford to go home, even for a short visit, because they have no idea whether they will be able to get back in,” was one typical comment.

Others pointed to the broader issue of an apparent conflict between the supposed goal of science to promote international interests, and the goal of diplomacy, namely  to advance the national interests of the country that the diplomat is serving.

There has been much talk of the need to find a way of achieving  a balance between these two tendencies. Reaching agreement on where that balance should lie is a major challenge. Achieving that balance will be even harder. Already it is clear from this meeting that science diplomacy is easier said than done.

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

Science diplomacy and international challenges: setting the scene

June 21, 2010

Over the past 60 years, “science diplomacy” – a concept that encompasses the various interactions between science and foreign affairs – has developed as an increasingly important component of international diplomatic activity.

In some instances, the concept is used to describe efforts to organise large-scale scientific experiments requiring support from several countries, such as those in astronomy or high-energy physics.

A second use covers the engagement of scientists in diplomatic negotiations with high scientific or technical content. Typical issue here is the need to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or to combat global warming and the social impacts of climate change.

Thirdly, the “scientific diplomacy” is increasingly used to describe how scientific collaboration between countries can be used as a lever to achieve diplomatic goals without resorting to more aggressive tactics, such as trade embargoes or even military intervention.

It is this last sense that “science diplomacy” has emerged prominently on the agenda in the past two years as a component of so-called “soft diplomacy” being developed by the administration of US President Barack Obama to secure its political goals, particularly in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.

This week, the British Foreign Office is hosting a three-day meeting at its Wilton Park conference centre to test the extent to which these efforts resonate with, and are supported by, other countries, particularly in Europe and in the developing world.

Held under the title “Science Diplomacy: Applying Science and Innovation to International Challenges”, the meeting has been organised in partnership with Britain’s Royal Society, and is intended to address questions such as:

  • How can science diplomacy be used effectively as a tool of soft power in international policy-making?
  • What mechanisms are needed to strengthen links between the science and foreign policy communities?
  • How can science diplomacy help foster positive re-engagement with the Islamic World?
  • And how can tensions between scientific independence on the one hand, and the needs of the state on the other, be balanced?

I’ll be blogging regularly from the conference over the three days, starting on the evening of Thursday.  This will not be an attempt to provide a complete summary of the meeting. Rather I’ll be highlighting what seem to be the most significant – or perhaps controversial – contributions to the debate, attempting to give an idea of the flavour of the discussions and a brief summary of any outcomes.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

The last dance and parting shots

October 23, 2009

The 11th TWAS general conference came to an end today with Jacob Palis, the president of the organisation, extending a greeting from another Jacob; Zuma, the president of South Africa.

Meeting Palis and his colleagues in Cape Town yesterday, Zuma promised that if TWAS was to organise another conference in his country he would attend in person. Oh well…

It has not just been hard work. Last night, TWAS members and staff were dancing on tables in a casino where the final party of the week took place. Unfortunately, your correspondent did not attend with her camera, otherwise this post may have had more interesting images to go with it.

The conference signalled a deepening collaboration between TWAS and South Africa, which is going to set up a regional chapter of the organisation.

It may also mark the end of an era. Mohammed Hassan, TWAS executive director, is expected to retire at some point. This could be his last general conference. But then again, it might not…

Even if Hassan retires, he is unlikely to sever his ties completely with the organisation, according to sources in TWAS. Like a certain Russian president-cum-prime minister, he is likely to stay involved for some time to come. Which, in this case, isn’t a bad thing!

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

But is it good enough?

October 22, 2009

This morning we heard from some of the more recent success stories in science and technology. Atta ur Rahman, the former science advisor to Pakistan’s prime minister, described how targeted policies had managed to increase the country’s citations in international journals by 1000% in the last four years.

He emphasised the importance of nurturing excellence, saying that too often, developing country universities lack the creative “soul” of science embodied by the “beautiful” minds that work in places like Oxford or MIT.

Excellence had been top of the list when drawing up Pakistan’s S&T policies, he said. Paying high salaries for mediocre scientists would not give the desired results. So efforts focused on identifying the brightest students used independent auditors to ensure they got the scholarships rather than the merely well-connected.

Quality has been a buzzword at this conference. This indicates a growing maturity in the debate. But not all developing country governments seem to have caught up on this. One South African delegate I spoke to after Rahman’s lecture told me his government would never place such emphasis on top of the line science and technology.

South Africa’s science minister Naledi Pandor would disagree. She is actively promoting excellence, she says. But some academics fear that a more left-leaning government in South Africa will regard elite universities and research as a bourgeois luxury. The country’s mid-term budgets next week may show which way the wind is blowing…

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

The University of Oxford - really excellent

The University of Oxford - really excellent. Image credit: Flickr / Missy and the Universe

Olympics, economics and Barack Obama

October 20, 2009

Much has changed in the fortunes of developing countries since last year’s TWAS meeting, the organisation’s president Jacob Palis said at the inaugural session before lunch today.

The financial crisis may have almost brought the world economy to a standstill—but it was the economic resilience of the developing country’s biggest economies that kept it going, he said.

Next year’s football World Cup in South Africa, a black man in the White House and Brazil winning the 2016 Olympics are all signs that the tide has turned for developing countries, he added.

Palis’ point was that one of the drivers of this change in developing countries’ fortunes is investments in science and technology.

But the progress has been uneven, and now it is up to the emerging economies—China, India, South Africa—to step up to the plate and share their successes with their neighbours, he concluded.

During the conference, South Africa and Brazil will meet for bilateral talks on how to boost science cooperation. There will be plenty of best practice examples for how to boost such links further.

But so far, the main voices in Durban have come from the powerful emerging economies, or from the developed world. Hopefully we will also be hearing from those who are a bit further from achieving a “knowledge revolution”.

The least developed countries will have access to help, but they also need to help themselves said South African science minister Naledi Pandor.

She voiced concern that four years after Africa adopted a common science plan, many countries either don’t have science ministries, or have not outlined a role for S&T in their national development plans.

In “recession watch” news, the German ambassador to South Africa said developed countries will not cut funding for developing country science.

Tell that to the Swedish development agency SIDA which may cut its research cooperation budget by 20% in 2010!

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net

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