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Science for Development in the South


Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)
Committee on Science and Technology in Developing Countries (COSTED)

prepared by

Prof. D. Balasubramanian
Director of Research
Hyderabad Eye Research Foundation, India

Helpful suggestions received from Prof. A.M. Cetto, Prof. M.H.A. Hassan, Prof. Lu Y.X., Prof. C.N.R. Rao, Prof. J.I. Vargas, Prof. S.O. Wandiga and Dr. V. Zharov are gratefully acknowledged.

The situation pertaining to the status of science in the South thus relates to the following broad issues:


what the South is already good at (e.g., empirical knowledge, traditional technologies and crafts);


what the South is rich in (e.g., biodiversity, traditional modes of germ plasm preservation, respect for the environment and the will to live in harmony with it);


what the South is poor in (e.g., resources for High Science, patent literacy and a discerning awareness of intellectual property rights);


mechanisms and means of bridging the North- South gap in science;


pooling of the efforts of neighbouring nations to tackle common issues in a cost-effective and mutually enhancing manner; and


global cooperation in science and technology programmes for development.
Towards such a goal and effort, an essential step is capacity building for science- led development. This involves the improvement of the scientific capabilities of the nation, and the utilization and sustenance of these capabilities. Emphasis is called for on the quality, relevance and leadership so that such capability can be funnelled into national developmental programs. This, in turn, involves the creation of a large mass-based spread of education and of science literacy.

An appreciation of this may be had from a recent UN-based survey that found that one extra year of primary schooling for the girl child has the effect of reducing infant mortality by a per cent or two; this extra year of education gives her the power to read about, comprehend and put into effect measures that will protect her infant against life-threatening situations- a direct and gratifying application of science. This also underscores the importance of involving both men and women in national efforts, and to consciously promote gender equality and balance, and of science literacy and the public understanding of science, its value and its role -direct and latent- in confronting diverse issues and attempting to solve them.

In our efforts towards capacity building in science, it is worth analyzing the attitudes that prevail, and the situation that obtains, in some parts of the South towards science. We need to identify factors leading to why science does not flourish even when talented people are available. Some of these have to do with an ill-placed antagonism towards "modern" science as a threat to traditional values. This can be effectively removed through sustained efforts of popularizing science through the media and through dialogues and discussions amongst citizens.

A second factor is the disparity in the career advancement structure available to those who choose the administrative, bureaucratic and management services of these countries on the one hand, and those who opt for the scientific or educational streams on the other; the latter are not just as well rewarded in terms of salaries, perquisites or the "status" as the former.

Even more important is the lack of the elaborate infrastructure that is required in order to do meaningful and high-impact science. This is increasingly felt in fast-moving areas such as material science, biology and information sciences. This handicap is thought to be the major reason behind the sad phenomenon of brain drain from homelands and the diaspora of the South scientists and technologists. Wherever such facilities have been provided and the infrastructure built in the South, science has flourished. Notable examples of such "oases" are in China, India, Thailand, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Mexico and Brazil, to name but a few countries. These examples also remind us that the term "less developed country" refers to the economic status, the gross domestic product and the average quality of life of the country, and not its intellectual reservoir or to the willingness of its average citizen to appreciate the value of science in particular and education in general.

A remarkable property of science and technology that needs to be recognized is their ability to jump geographical boundaries and national borders. Intimate understanding of the mechanism and the workings is not always necessary, but operating knowledge, upkeep and maintenance of the tools suffices in most cases. Electronic communication devices and the desktop computer exemplify this point. Use of tools leads to their understanding and also to sophistication in training, handling, repairing, and improvising and improving on them. This advantage has enabled many countries to compress time and leap-frog towards enhancing the quality of their lives, using the tools of technology, within a few years. The use of new information technologies, now available at low cost, helps in the uplift of school and university education, optimization of library budgets, and in ending the isolation of scientists and technologists of the South.
Key Issues and Priority Action Points:

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Some of the key issues involved and the priority actions that need to be taken by the various countries are enumerated below.

The UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, held in October 1998, has declared that education is a fundamental pillar of human rights, democracy, sustainable development and peace and shall, therefore, be the first priority of the world in the 21st century.

Education is the key to awareness, to understanding and to action for development. Relevant for the purposes of the World Conference on Science is education in science. It is important that science education start at the primary school level and go on up to the tertiary and quaternary (research) levels. It should involve the formal, curricular, pedagogic and institutional mode, as well as the non-formal mode including the use of mass media such as newspapers and magazines, radio and television. A large number of national and international agencies have addressed the question of the curricular content at the school, college and university levels, and several very good model, field-tested curricula and course contents are available.

Similarly, a large number of standard and time-tested and appreciated text books are also available in special, low-price editions, thanks to the efforts of international science agencies and publishers. Low-cost educational aids such as charts, models, science experimental kits and computer software packages have been produced through the sponsorship of such agencies and through national efforts. Procuring and evaluating these, and choosing or modifying them to suit local needs, languages and resources is recommended. Such efforts would help dispel the false notion that science is a "hard" subject in schools, and make the students enjoy science. These steps save the effort of "reinventing the wheel", show that investment in science is not always expensive, and help the nation in learning from the experience of others. Workshops and trial sessions are recommended, both in the national and international levels, where science kits and other locally developed materials can be evaluated and refined for educational use.


Science teaching and education at the tertiary and postgraduate levels go hand in hand with research. Sadly, however, this point is not realised or put into practice in many a nation of the South; resource constraints, inadequacy of laboratory equipment and lack of trained faculty are often quoted to be the difficulty. In many nations, universities and research institutions are thought to be separate entities, each with a specified goal- namely universities for teaching and research laboratories as exclusive centres for research and development. Yet, teaching and research are complementary and overlapping, each feeding into the other. A postgraduate degree-holder out of a university who does not have any research training or experience is as handicapped as a doctor freshly out of a medical college or an engineer out of a technological university who has no hands-on experience. Science is doing, as the saying goes, and a scientist with no research training and experience is ill equipped for his profession. It is therefore recommended that the science curriculum and course structure be so built as to necessarily include experiments using locally available resources and natural materials; this offers training into research methodology, manual dexterity and respect for working with hands, innovation in design and execution, and analytic ability.

College students in science should be offered summer internships in research laboratories, industrial factories, hospitals, fields and farms. Collaboration between universities and research centres should be especially forged towards this goal. Science teachers in schools and colleges may be offered sabbatical leaves of absence to enable them to work in research settings, so that they gain experience and initiate activity in their own institutions.

The UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education of October 1998 declared that, without adequate higher education and research institutions, no country could assure sustainable development and, in particular, the developing countries could not reduce the gap separating them from the industrially developed countries.

Since the post-Second World War period, the use of commercially purchased sophisticated analytical and measuring instruments and equipment has become an inevitable feature of research laboratories. Generally, such equipment needs to be placed in special rooms that demand dust-free, controlled temperature and occasionally germ-free or sterile conditions. Some of these instruments are general-purpose, and used in a variety of research laboratories, and can thus be shared. Each university or research institution needs to draw up a list of such common equipment, acquire them and make them available on a multiple user, time share basis, so as to make them cost-effective. Some nations have successfully set up regional sophisticated instrument centres that cater to many research laboratories and university departments in the geographical region, on the above basis. Some other nations have set up such facilities on a trans-national basis. Both these approaches are recommended, so that research costs for a given institution, region or even country may come down and, in addition, interaction and collaboration between researchers increase in the process.

Maintenance of research equipment and laboratories is another major point that needs to be given attention. This requires the training of mechanics, technicians and engineers on basic instrumentation, electronics, microprocessor and computer hardware and software and, in some instances, specialized training on specific instruments. Special courses and training programmes, and hands-on experience sessions need to be organized periodically and as the model or the level of sophistication of the instrument changes. The lack of such trained manpower, which can handle, maintain and upkeep equipment in research laboratories can make the difference between a successfully running laboratory and a stuttering one. As developing nations plan their scientific activities, research and development programmes, this point needs to be specially taken into account.

Infrastructure does not refer only to the provision of utilities such as water, electric power, gas and fuel, clean and conditioned air where necessary and such "housekeeping" needs, though these are vital and must be guaranteed and backed up. It also refers to the technical support in terms of trained personnel to run the facilities, instruments, workshop and the like. In planning for infrastructure, this aspect of trained technical manpower should not be forgotten. It is also important for laboratories in developing countries to maintain adequate stock of spare parts, accessories and peripherals associated with scientific instruments and hardware. This will not only ensure the smooth and uninterrupted running of the programmes but also cut costs substantially; it would also obviate the need for a foreign engineer to fly in and repair an instrument, since trained technical persons would be available at home.
In efforts at capacity building for science-led development in the South, networking of scientists and institutions within and across nations and continents is a viable proposition. Tie-ups between universities of the North and the South, and of South and South, have already led to successful capacity building. The successful setting up of several institutions of excellence in the South through the collective efforts of consortia of North institutions is also worthy of emulation. Such linkages breed research training and collaboration, and help in solving problems of local and global concerns; in effect, they produce a global village.

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