Back to UNESCO WCS Home page


Sciences and Development:
prospects for the 21st Century

Brussels (Belgium), 3-4 December 1998

International Symposium of the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences
Academie royale des sciences d’Outre-mer
Koninklijke Academie voor Overzeese Wetenschappen

In association with the UNESCO/ICSU World Conference on Science,
in cooperation with TWAS (Third World Academy of Sciences)


Observations and Pointers
The main features of current trends
The hold of science and technological innovation on contemporary society
The challenges and dangers confronting science
Relations between the various actors
The research methods to be promoted
The new demands placed on education
Relations between North and South
What ethical principles should govern the science of the future?

Observations and Pointers    Back to top
The main features of current trends

The world, shaped as it is today by the progress of science and technological inputs, is marked by the emergence of new, increasingly complex societal forms: a networked, self-managing society. The greater the size of human societies, which are non-linear systems, the greater is their ‘non-linearity’; fluctuations and instability increase; as a consequence, the notions of symmetry and balance are no longer relevant to the ways by which this reality is grasped. Hence deterministic views of nature have given way to a rational explanatory system of a probabilistic kind. If the universe is so understood, the human species is only one of the possible outcomes of the laws of nature: ‘the possible is richer than the actual’ (I. Prigogine). This growing complexity is also a feature of the developing regions, where a series of problems have become increasingly acute: poverty, lack of access to drinking water, to health care and to education, pollution, deforestation, desertification, exploitation of children, migration, armed conflicts, illiteracy, isolation, marginalization and North–South disequilibrium in the production and use of science and technological know-how are all factors of instability and antagonism that threaten our ‘global village’, to quote Marshal MacLuhan. This disparity between North and South is demonstrated by the fact that in 1997, for example, there were 442 Internet sites per 1,000 inhabitants in the USA, 76 in Japan, 50 in France but only 4.2 in Brazil, 1.8 in Colombia and 0.05 in India. Another illustration is the fact that 90 per cent of scientific publications are produced in the North and only 10 per cent in the South, with Africa accounting for scarcely 0.7 per cent.

The hold of science and technological innovation on contemporary society    Back to top

This situation calls for the application of new concepts and new methodologies, particularly in view of the fact that science has become ambivalent, dispensing both beneficial and adverse effects. The current capacity of science to explore the future, improve the quality of life in North and South alike, circulate information, encourage citizen participation and promote peace and equity comes up in practice against a series of curbs, not to say obstacles: the constraint of the logic of real time, the restriction of the field of vision to a short-term horizon, the possible repercussions of genetic engineering on humanity, the compartmentalization of disciplines, hyperspecialization and the brain drain.

The challenges and dangers confronting science    Back to top

In the field of communication technology and the dissemination of information the dangers are as follows: information overload may become unmanageable, prompting a return to ex cathedra pronouncements; large private companies may monopolize the information highways; the cultural industries may become entirely market-driven; control of the quality and objectivity of the data transmitted may be inadequate. The question therefore arises: What is science for? Given that, as a result of current developments, the present generation is usurping the rights of future generations. The reply to this question involves several different fields.

Relations between the various actors    Back to top

The first task is to set up constructive interactions between the various actors concerned. Generally speaking, what is needed is a new contract redefining the relations between science and society. In this context, care should be taken to ensure that the globalization of science does not restrict the multiplicity of scientific approaches. The cultural underpinning in which scientific activities are rooted must be taken into account in drawing up this new contract. The gap that is now opening up between those who have access to knowledge and those who do not will have to be filled – an issue requiring the attention of political leaders. From now on, their goal must be to promote equity in the sharing of science and practical knowledge. The sort of interrelations that are needed are among scientists themselves, taking into account the pressures to which they are subjected as a result of technological nationalism, the fragmentation of society brought about by geopolitical power plays, geopolitical exclusivity and neo-liberal commercialism. These interrelations are also between the scientific world and the political world and vice versa. The former must send clear messages to the latter, while the politicians must create the conditions – whether material (infrastructure and equipment), moral (the fundamental freedoms), institutional (public and semi-public bodies) or intellectual (training and mobility) – that are essential to the well-being of researchers and to curbing the brain drain. These interactions also include the private sector. While industrial companies and development agencies pursue different ends in both research and field work, they nevertheless converge in the common aim of promoting economic growth. The potential – and in some cases actual – contribution of the business world to development in terms of investment, advice and services must be harnessed. International organizations should also be involved. It is significant in this respect that the World Bank has recently been talking of the need to ‘bridge the knowledge gap’ between North and South, with the collaboration of private sector partners. Lastly, civil society too should be drawn in; citizens themselves must be involved in the responses to our question. The restrictions and limits that stand in the way, particularly in countries where fundamental freedoms and human rights are not respected, must be removed as far as possible. However, it has to be acknowledged that under the pressure of public opinion technologically benign solutions in the environmental field (such as the processing of nuclear waste) are rejected for no good reason, while at the same time a desire to reduce CO2 emissions is professed. Encouragingly, the non-governmental organizations (NGO), in their role as the mouthpieces of civil society, are able to open communications between the creators and the users of scientific inputs, i.e. between those involved in the various stages leading from the researcher to the consumer.

The research methods to be promoted    Back to top

The interrelations to be promoted are not just between the actors but lie within the scientific research field itself. The compartmentalization of disciplines and the distortions resulting from the hyperspecialization referred to above mean that it is no longer possible to take in the realities of the modern world, in particular those of the developing regions. Interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are now imperative. The real world has to be grasped in its many dimensions and facets; it is not confined to the economic, social, political or academic spheres but embraces the arts, music and alternative medicine. These fields need to be addressed in their totality, employing a holistic approach based on a reading of the pattern of their interactions and retroactions. Consequently, any splitting off of the exact sciences from the human sciences is to be avoided. In the absence of any full equivalence or established hierarchy between science, the applied sciences and the human sciences, the importance of the latter should be emphasized since they are capable of facilitating the transmission of knowledge, highlighting the diversity of cultural content and buttressing development strategies.

The new demands placed on education    Back to top

Alongside the interconnections to be promoted between actors and research areas, the reply to our question is also situated upstream of actual scientific practice, namely in the education system. Its restructuring is absolutely essential if the above-mentioned aims are to be attained, both in quantitative terms (access to education on a democratic basis and development of the various levels and types of training) and in qualitative terms (curricula, disciplines and human resources). The renewal of curricula implied by this approach should focus on greater receptivity and attention to the role of science, to technological inputs and to respect for the environment, including ecosystems and their biodiversity. This should apply to the various forms of transmission of knowledge: theoretical and applied, formal and non-formal, literacy work and continuing education. The aim should be to provide the developing countries, and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, with the capacity they need to manage the new technologies, particularly with regard to national and regional information networks. These reforms involve further reforms: a redefinition of the role of teachers; the establishment of links with private enterprise in order to target more precisely the requirements of the job market and to meet them more effectively; the selection of the languages of education with a view to preserving local languages as the vehicle of culture and to facilitating access to international research findings; the rooting of education in the underlying local culture and its provision through domestic resources.

Relations between North and South    Back to top

A final point in response to our question concerns relations between North and South, which also need to be reconsidered. From now on, these relations should be based on the notion of partnership, which implies new obligations: namely, the pursuit of equity in the design and conduct of research programmes and the means of carrying them out, together with the protection and circulation of the results; the need to establish networks and alliances to prevent research workers from being sidelined; the promotion by this and other means of greater mobility and more exchanges with a view to mutual benefit and an extension of the notion of citizenship; and willingness to accept that the methodology, results and application of research should be open to challenge. But in order to be effective, partnership must necessarily fulfil three conditions. All participants must be of a very high level; the expected benefits for the recipients must be self-evident, tangible and accessible, given that scientific cooperation should be conducive to development and social justice and should respect the sociocultural environment in which the various partners are active; and lastly, the partnership should be in a context that provides a minimum level of political, structural and economic support. It should also be noted that growing South–South collaboration is at present opening up new horizons. Science and technology have undergone considerable development in Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the Republic of Korea and South Africa, all of them countries that have indicated their willingness to cooperate with other countries of the South; 430 scientific centres of excellence have been identified in 52 developing countries, which opens up a broad field for cooperation.

What ethical principles should govern the science of the future?    Back to top

The conclusion to be drawn from all these observations is that scientific research and its applications must henceforth be based on an ethics of the future. If we are to achieve sustainable development combined with a higher quality of life, three principles must underpin such an ethical system. First, the principle of responsibility towards the distant future. Two obligations ensue: the need to preserve our own nature, which means respecting the specific identity of the individual, and the need to preserve the nature around us, which implies the invention of an ecological economy that will protect the biosphere and the creation of a ‘clean development’ mechanism. A second principle derives from the first one: that of solidarity with present and future generations. This should serve as a guide for the future development of science and the choice of the technologies to be promoted. The ethics of the future should address such matters as the eradication of poverty and the psychological distress and physical hardship it engenders, the prevention of the conflicts that arise from ignorance, imbalances, frustrations, intolerance and injustice, and the refinement of our understanding of nature in order to protect it. The third element on which the dynamics of science should be based is the precautionary principle. The demise of the old certainties, the growing complexity resulting from such factors as the proliferation of actors and the risks entailed in the very existence of the new areas of activity opened up by science mean that we have to manage its potential with discernment and caution.

Recommendations    Back to top

In addition to these observations and pointers concerning the future prospects of science and development in the 21st century, a few more specific recommendations can be put forward:

With a view to protecting the free circulation and equitable distribution of knowledge, the means of communication and of access to information should have the status of a public service;

The historical tendency to set up military alliances should be redirected towards the creation of alliances to promote peace and protect the environment;

The flow of knowledge should be in two directions: both ‘top down’ towards rural communities and ‘bottom up’ from these communities, since popular knowledge is too often ignored although it can be scientifically developed in ways that are useful to the various actors concerned; methodological approaches should systematically take heed of local ways of doing and thinking;

Consideration could be given to establishing an advisory council, modelled on a works management committee, grouping representatives of international organizations, the business world and scientific institutions with a view to enhancing the complementarity of their contribution to development; it might be desirable to decentralize such a body in order to ensure a better grasp of local realities;

if the excessive isolation of too many scientific communities in the developing countries is to be remedied, a three-pronged approach is required, involving protection of the results of their work, access to the means of circulating these results and the extension and acceleration among all the institutions concerned of the free circulation of scientific advances, including those produced in centres of excellence;

To stimulate awareness of the impact of science and technology on everyday life now and in the future, greater emphasis should be placed in curricula on mathematics and natural science teaching, given that the effectiveness of this teaching varies greatly from one country to another, even within the industrialized world;

the ethical standards underpinning the culture of peace, dialogue that respects individual identities and the empowerment of citizens in the context of their internationally recognized rights and obligations should be included in the curricula of the different levels of the education pyramid.

The ideas developed in this overview of the Symposium open the way towards applications whose introduction will depend not only on scientific organizations and political authorities, but also on funding agencies.

Professeur Paule Bouvier coordinated drafting of report.


Contacts    Back to top
For further information, please contact:


Associated Meetings List

Back to UNESCOBack to Natural SciencesBack to WCS