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Science and Development
Paris (France), 13–14 May 1998

Symposium of French Speaking Countries

The scene today: strengths, weaknesses and questions
France's place in scientific cooperation


 Introduction    Back to top

'Science' is used here in its broadest sense to include the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, life sciences, space sciences, health, etc.), technological sciences (communications, computer science, electronics, etc.) human sciences (economics, sociology, anthropology, history, geography, psychology, etc.), and the 'exact' sciences (e.g. mathematics).

'Development' here means sustainable development, not only of the 'developing' or 'emerging' countries of the South and of Eastern Europe, but also of the countries of the North, the 'industrialized' countries' out of a concern for equity, solidarity and overall balance.

For the purposes of the present note, the term 'Science and Development' covers three different aspects:

  • the use and application of science for development;
  • the participation and integration of science and scientists in society (cf. discussions on the social involvement of science);
  • scientific cooperation.

The developing countries, usually primarily agricultural, are currently having to adapt to extremely rapid socio-economic change (urbanization, demographic growth, internationalization of trade) and to cope with serious problems of food security (2), public health, poverty and environmental damage. Faced with such issues, the development of these countries is generally handicapped not only by economic and political obstacles but also by the inadequacy of their scientific and technical resources in many
fields (3). It must be emphasized, however, that the situation varies considerably, from the rapidly developing countries of Asia to the most impoverished ones.

In the North, the terms of the problem are different. The countries of the North, richly endowed with major scientific organizations and facilities, are faced not only with growing social disparities and the exclusion of some categories of their populations but also with the disruptive effects of uncontrolled industrial and technological development on the environment and on society. These new challenges reveal the reductive and compartmentalized representation of the world used in the traditional scientific approaches (see the writings of Edgar Morin) and show the need to develop new modes of democratic debate, expertise and decision-making.

There is a very long record of cooperation between North and South. It is essentially based on principles which are themselves now being brought into question (a linear view of development based on industrialization and the 'transferability' and 'transportability' (4) of technology) and are a source of growing anxiety (3). The foundations must now be laid for a new commitment, the existing commitment must be reviewed and the appropriate lessons learnt from the wealth of past experience.

The scene today: strengths, weaknesses and questions    Back to top

The international scientific landscape is characterized by major capabilities in the North and a very considerable number of initiatives oriented towards international cooperation. There is, however, an overall reduction in the efforts made by the countries of the North to fund actions for scientific cooperation, while resources in the South are virtually non-existent. This results in a very unevenly balanced dialogue between North and South and a questioning of the basic principles and the ethics underlying scientific practices oriented towards development and cooperation. Let us now examine these assertions in detail.

A large number of national scientific institutions of the North and international centres (notably the international centres for agricultural research) are involved in actions for North-South cooperation, in association with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and development and cooperation agencies. National scientific institutions of the North include, aside from universities and schools at tertiary level involved in scientific cooperation, the research centres specializing in cooperation, such as the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) in Great Britain, the Centre de recherche pour le développement international (CRDI) in Canada and, in France, the Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD) and the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD, formerly ORSTOM). In addition, the United Nations System includes various agencies concerned with science and development: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), World Health Organization (WHO), UNESCO, etc. We should also mention a number of other, perhaps less well-known, international initiatives (preceded by the year they were launched):

1957: Pugwash Conferences on science and world affairs;

1964: International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP, Trieste, Italy), also known, since the death of its founder, as the Abdus Salam Centre;

1966: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI, Sweden), created under the impetus (notably) of the Pugwash movement;

1972: International Foundation for Science (IFS, Stockholm, Sweden), which supports young scientists from the South carrying out research in the South (this organization was also created under the impetus of the Pugwash movement);

1983: Third World Academy of Science (TWAS, Trieste, Italy);

1988: Third World Network of Scientific Organizations (TWNSO, Trieste, Italy).

It should be emphasized that the publications of the TWNSO and ICSU provide useful (historical and geographical) reference points and means of comparison concerning the structures present, or absent, in the various countries of the South (centres and laboratories 'of excellence', organizations, learned societies, academies).

Such numerous initiatives should not be allowed to mask a number of alarming trends involving a weakening of cooperation-oriented scientific exchanges and/or the exclusion of the countries most in need:

  • the increasing lack of coordination of contributions at national or international level, despite one or two initiatives (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, for instance, or coordination within the European Union);
  • an overall reduction both in development aid, particularly aid to reinforce the scientific and technical capabilities of the South, and in financial support for cooperation research programmes (the European Union has considerably reduced its aid in this field over recent years);
  • the current tendency, as a consequence, to refocus the contributions of the countries of the North involved in cooperation on the few 'emerging' or potentially most promising countries in economic terms (only ten or so);
  • changes in intellectual property rights practices and procedures (in association with the introduction of the new World Trade Organization agreements), which are likely to exclude a certain number of developing countries unprepared for such a development;
  • the privatization of public research systems (e.g. in the USA and, recently, in the UK), and the private sector appropriating entire areas of knowledge which should at least in part be in the 'public domain' (e.g. knowledge related to genetic resources, or foodstuffs, which is increasingly being taken over by large private groups with the tacit or active agreement of the public authorities); let us point out that the resulting dependance on a few private groups (e.g. for access to biotechnologies, or genetic ressources) is a problem which concerns both the emerging countries and industrialized ones;
  • the siphoning off of the brains of the South and of Eastern Europe by the laboratories of the North, while the research institutions in these countries are in crisis.

In the developing countries of the South, apart from international centres financed by the international community and the ten or so countries that are doing relatively well, the scientific organizations and facilities are characterized by major weaknesses in almost every field, not only the so-called 'basic' sciences (a weakness at university level linked to inadequate and unstable resources), but also the sciences which are by their very nature more rooted in social demand (e.g. the national research systems, currently in very difficult situations in Africa).

Some countries of the South (Madagascar, for instance) simply fail to appear on the map of the international scientific community established as a result of the survey conducted by the skills centre directory of the TWNSO. Where local skills centres do exist, their influence in terms of development is geographically focused in proximity to such skills (4). The weakness of the national organizations and facilities is not compensated for by the regionalization initiatives undertaken by the centres for research (or for coordination, at the very least between countries close to one another), which remain limited.

This imbalance as far as science is concerned between the developed and the developing countries, the roots of which are essentially political and economic, manifests itself in cooperation-oriented scientific exchanges in the following way: funding and practices remain largely dominated by the idea of the transfer of knowledge, methods and technologies from the North to the South, and are at times solely concerned with exploiting local resources on the cheap. The scientific contributions of the South, potentially rich in representations of the world different from those of traditional science, are not part of the cooperation model, unless they reveal themselves to be a possible object for economic exploitation.    Back to top

All this is reflected in a deeply felt anxiety, as evidenced by the exchanges recorded in the course of the Science and Development Symposium (1). This anxiety appears essentially to spring from:

  • scientific and technical 'domination' by the countries of the North;
  • the technological and economic dependence of the countries of the South;
  • a development model imposed by the North and not necessarily adapted to the particular socio-economic and cultural contexts of the countries of the South, nor necessarily sustainable on a global scale;
  • a lack of respect by the North for the South's technical resources (e.g. lack of respect for alternative medical practices or ignorance of them); `
  • 'pillaging' of the South's resources by the countries of the North (e.g. genetic material, know-how, raw materials, scientific skills).

After a century of major technical advances, essentially achieved by and for the countries of the North, it must be recognized that economic development can no longer be thought of in terms of 'headlong pursuit', producing major local and global imbalances. This recognition has over recent years led the scientific and non-scientific community to ask (or re-ask) itself a certain number of questions. Can the development model initiated by the countries of the North be durably applied on a global scale? Can uncontrolled industrialization still constitute a development model? With, as a corollary, questions as to the future development of scientific organizations and facilities.We can no longer simply argue for 'more and more' science (the experience of Eastern Europe has shown how scientific voluntarism can lead to enormous ecological and social problems). We must also ensure that science has a 'social involvement', we must correct threatening imbalances and conciliate at times contradictory demands.

The following questions arise: How to share knowledge and know-how? How and by whom can the scientific policy of a country be determined (cf. the problem of scientific expertise), if the country has no independent scientific organizations and facilities? How to establish a balanced scientific dialogue and partnership between the scientifically powerful developed countries and countries which have, for a variety of reasons, not been able to develop a critical mass in the scientific field?

The recent Cotonou Declaration 'For a new world scientific order' (5) argues for reinforcement of the South's scientific capabilities. How can this be achieved? Should one favour reinforcing the scientific organizations and facilities of the ten or so countries of the South that currently have the capacity for it (6)? Is it better to follow a directive policy, concentrating resources on a few centres of excellence in order to achieve breakthroughs?

What balance to establish between the fundamental and the technological sciences, when the urgency of development encourages favouring the more applied aspects at the expense of the more fundamental ones (7)? How to overcome the disciplinary compartmentalization of academic approaches and the compartmentalization between scientists and lay society, so that social demand can be better satisfied? How to move towards more 'humane' sciences (8) and no longer exclude a whole area of the globe which is unable to fit into the development approach initiated by the industrialized countries? What are the respective places to be accorded to the public and the private sector in scientific development?

How to encourage the emergence of a third (non-profit making) sector? How to structure society in general within in such a way that various institutions (learned societies, academies, foundations, associations, etc.) can give the scientific community a chance to acquire a minimum of autonomy from the political and economic powers? Such questions need to be thought about in depth: jointly, carefully and vigilantly .

France's place in scientific cooperation    Back to top

France could have a special place in scientific cooperation, with a firmly rooted historical tradition of North-South cooperation and a well-designed cooperation research structure with a high international profile (e.g. France has the leading world centre for cooperation research in agriculture). As well as the activities of the French scientific centres and agencies closely involved in cooperation (CIRAD, IRD, IFREMER, Institut Pasteur, INSERM, CEMAGREF, etc.), there are a large number of voluntary, non-institutional initiatives, particularly on the part of the student and university community (let us point out for instance the key role of French universities in the scientific cooperation with Algeria, Morrocco and Tunisia) (1). Such initiatives are perhaps the forerunners of new forms of scientific cooperation.

There are various indications, however, that France is currently lagging behind:

  • This seems to be linked firstly to the lack of coordination of cooperation actions, despite efforts to coordinate those undertaken by different institutions (e.g. the CIRAD-INRA-IRD group) and the National Coordinating Committee piloted over recent years by Anne de Lattre. In particular, it would appear that there could be better coordination with the many actions engaged in by the universities. This lack of coordination could well be reduced in the near future as a result of the recent initiative to coordinate the actions of institutions involved in scientific cooperation;
  • It also appears to be linked to a long-standing strategy essentially focused on French-speaking countries (e.g. the Agence francophone pour l'enseignement et la recherche) at the expense of English-speaking ones, even though English is the predominant scientific language internationally. The fact that the French system of scientific research, teaching and programming is very different from that adopted by Anglo-Saxon countries also isolates France to some extent;
  • The situation is aggravated by the fact that some of the most prestigious French scientific institutions have demonstrated a blindness and a prolonged inertia which do them no credit. This last point is worth examining in detail, as the situation could be corrected, at no expense, by a simple change of mentality. France has an Academy of Overseas Science (ASOM, formerly the Academy of Colonial Science) that is simply not equal to the task. Over the last few years, the French Academy of Science (Institut de France) has had a working group on the developing countries and this became a permanent committee (COPED) in January 1997 – all in all a merit-worthy initiative. However, the Academy of Science has no room for the French-speaking countries of the South. It comes off badly when compared to the Royal Society, whose doors are open to scientists from the Commonwealth. Lastly, France has not yet succeeded in founding an autonomous Academy of Engineering (unlike Sweden, 1919; Denmark, 1937; USA, 1964; UK, 1976; etc.) We need to remind ourselves that international relations constitute one of the raisons d'être of such academies, one of their essential tasks.

The visible consequences of these shortcomings are the virtual absence of national or regional scientific academies in the French-speaking countries of the South and a significant under-representation of these countries in the Third World Academy of Sciences and other associated international institutions. It should finally be noted that the CIMPA (International Center for Pure and Applied Mathematics) has had a precarious existence for the last twenty years.

Recommendations/Proposals    Back to top

The scientific domain is a particularly important field of cooperation as it determines whether or not countries are included in the international economic landscape. Historically, scientific cooperation has essentially focused on knowledge transfer (technology transfer, for example), and on substitution ('tropicalist' research by scientists of the North carried out in the countries of the South), both approaches stemming from major weaknesses in the South's scientific organizations and facilities.

If science is to have a different commitment in the 21st century, new methods need to be found and a move needs to be made from such traditional approaches to a new science-sharing approach, given that there is a major lack of scientific organizations and facilities in the South. It goes without saying that such a change in the French position should be integrated as much as possible into the European context, both to give it greater weight and to avoid the danger of its being restricted to Metropolitan France or to the French-speaking countries.

Our recommendations are:    Back to top

Recommendation 1: improved sharing of existing knowledge through better use of the new communications systems (in this, France lags well behind the Anglo-Saxon countries). On a practical level, France could make a greater financial commitment to long-distance learning programmes or to the construction of databases and scientific skills networks like those being created in numerous fields at an international level (e.g. hydrology databases, agri-food database, etc.)

Recommendation 2: the focusing of our cooperation on the 'progressive development of knowledge by both parties' (i.e. going well beyond simple knowledge sharing or transfer). A few practical measures could rapidly be taken, such as more extensive joint North-South membership of authorities responsible for coordinating and programming scientific activities and joint debates on subjects of common interest (educational reform, public research investment in sustainable food industry development, etc.)

Recommendation 3: a clearly stated French position in the debate on i) public versus private research (in favour of public research activities in all fields of research in the public domain and against their takeover by the private sector), ii) the new forms of North-South cooperation in research and iii) intellectual property rights practices (in favour of greater equity).

Recommendation 4: an affirmation that scientists are responsible not only to society in general in their own country but also to society in general throughout the world. In practical terms, basic notions of ethics, professional codes of ethics, and epistemology could be included in both the initial and the continuing training of French scientists. Such a recommendation is consistent with the recent declaration of the French Minister of Education, Research and Technology, Claude Allègre (July 1998), that all research institutions should establish their own ethics committee. It is alarming to note that no French school of engineering or science has so far put such ideas into practice, despite the fact that their students are likely to come up against problems concerned with science and development.

Recommendation 5: in the context of public service missions, i) better integration of university skills into cooperation exchanges, and ii) reform of our academic institutions and learned societies (to make them more open to the world, more representative and more effective). This might include: appointing members of staff responsible for cooperation exchanges in the universities; establishing an office of the Third World Academy of Sciences in Paris (Headquarters of UNESCO and ICSU); updating cooperation links between the various academies (science, engineering, overseas activities, agriculture, medicine, etc.) concerned with science and development topics; and helping to set up an international network of Trieste-type institutions.

Nota Bene
The present note was written after wide-ranging discussions with contributors from the North and the South during the symposium: 'Sciences et Development: regards croisés, propositions d'actions (1) held on 13 and 14 May 1998, and further discussion in a discussion group coordinated by Anne-Lucie Raoult-Wack, Gérard Toulouse and Jean-Pierre Kahane, also involving Ahmed Djebbar and Guy Blaudin de Thé.

The present note was also discussed and improved at joint meetings of the French National Commission for UNESCO and the Association Descartes (contributions from Thierry Gaudin, Alain Pompidou, François Gros and Marianne Grunberg-Manago).

The present note was lastly revised by Hubert Coudanne for aspects related to universities and by Alain Weil.

References    Back to top

  1. Proceedings of the 1998 Symposium 'Sciences et Développement. Regards croisés, propositions d'action'. French-speaking symposium on the initiative of the Centre Interdisciplinaire d'Etude de l'Evolution des Idées, des Sciences et des Techniques (CIEEST), Paris sud University, under the auspices of UNESCO. Published by CIEEST.
  2. FAO (1997) World Food Summit, November 1996.
  3. Raoult-Wack, A.L; Bricas N. (1998). Controllable development of the food sector in tropical areas: main challenges, fields of research and research procedures. Outlook on Agriculture, vol.27 (4): 225-235.
  4. Callon M.; Foray D. (1997). Nouvelle économie de la Science ou socio économie de la recherche scientifique. Revue d'Economie Industrielle.
  5. Cotonou Declaration 'For a new world scientific order’, 28 mai 1997. J.Hountondji (
  6. Third System review of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, 8 October 1998.
  7. Lobry, C. (1998). Recherche mathématique et développement : le rôle de la France.
  8. Armatya Sen, Nobel Laureate for Economics 1998. On Ethics and Economics.

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