Global Science Gaps Need Global Action

The opportunity exists for many developing countries to become active participants in science, technology, and innovation, but to succeed they will need the support of the international scientific community.

When it comes to the global state of science, technology, and innovation (ST&I), there’s more than one divide. Many readers of Issues in Science and Technology are familiar with the North-South divide between developed and developing countries—a divide that continues to persist. But there’s another divide as well—a South-South divide—that is becoming increasingly prevalent within the developing world. The fact is that some developing countries are rapidly gaining strength in ST&I, whereas others continue to languish.

Yet, before considering what is happening in scientifically lagging developing countries, it might be helpful to provide a broad outline of the world of ST&I as it exists today. First, there are countries with strong ST&I capacity. This group of about 25 countries, consisting largely of countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), enjoys across-the-board strengths in all areas of science and technology (S&T) and has the capacity to transfer scientific and technological knowledge into products and services that boost their economies. Rich in ST&I, they are financially well off as well.

Second, there are countries with moderate ST&I capacity. This group of about 90 countries includes some of the largest countries in the developing world, among them China, India, and Brazil. But the list contains others as well: Argentina, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey, to name just a few. It is a diverse group with wide-ranging capabilities. The majority have a degree of competence in a select number of fields. But broad pockets of weakness remain, and the scientific infrastructure, including classrooms and laboratories, while improving, still often trails the quality of instruction and equipment found in countries with strong ST&I capacities.

The ability of these countries to bring their scientific and technical know-how to the marketplace is relatively weak, although recent indicators suggest that this transition is becoming less problematic in a few countries. In February 2007, for example, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) reported that although the United States still leads the world in patent applications, Asia is rapidly narrowing the gap. China filed nearly 4,000 patent applications in 2006, more than double the 2005 total. “New centers of innovation, particularly in northeast Asia, are emerging,” noted a WIPO official, “and this is transforming the geography of both the patent system and of future growth.”

That is the good news. The bad news is that there is a third category of countries marked by weak ST&I capacity. A survey conducted by the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) has identified 79 such countries, the majority of which are in sub-Saharan Africa and the Islamic region. These countries have very limited capacity in every field of S&T. They have poor teaching facilities, substandard laboratories, and scant ability to transfer their knowledge and know-how into products and services, especially products and services that can compete in the international marketplace. Researchers in these countries lack the capacity to participate in cutting-edge scientific endeavors, and many of their most promising young scientists migrate to other nations to pursue their careers. In the majority of these countries, there is minimal government support for ST&I. More generally, there is the absence of a culture of science.

Thus, the first and most significant challenge for international cooperation in ST&I is this: How can international cooperation help reduce the disparities among nations, particularly the disparities that exist between the scientifically stronger nations and the 79 countries that TWAS has identified as weak in ST&I?

Expanding the reach of ST&I to countries that have been largely left behind is one of the most critical problems of our time. But it is by no means the only one. The problems of sustainable well-being are increasingly complex and global in their dimensions. Yet the people who are most vulnerable to the risks posed by global assaults on the environment are often the most impoverished and marginalized people in the developing world.

In our interconnected world, which has become a truly global community thanks largely to the Internet and airline travel, no country can fully escape the acute problems that plague other nations. That is the message encapsulated in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approved by member states of the United Nations in 2000. These goals set targets to address the world’s most pressing problems—problems that stand in the way of sustainable well-being in the developing world and that threaten peace and harmony everywhere: poverty, hunger, the spread of infectious diseases, poor education, gender inequality, and the lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and energy.

To help make progress on all these fronts, the MDGs’ eighth measure calls for the creation of global partnerships that tap the collective talents of individuals and institutions in the developed and developing worlds. Experts agree that the MDGs have no chance of being met unless special attention is paid to problems of well-being (or should we say ill-being) that exist in Africa. More than 40% of all Africans do not have access to safe drinking water. Seventy percent do not have access to electricity. Twenty-five million Africans are infected with HIV, more than 60% of the world’s total. Ninety percent of the world’s malaria victims, numbering more than one million people each year, reside in Africa. Agriculture is the main source of sustenance and income for 70% of all Africans. Yet in Africa, 30 million children go to bed hungry every night.

SCIENCE FOR THE SAKE OF SCIENCE IS NO LONGER SUFFICIENT JUSTIFICATION FOR DOING SCIENCE IN MANY PARTS OF THE WORLD WHERE BUDGETS ARE LIMITED.

Africa may be poor, but it is not small. It includes more than 20% of Earth’s landmass, comprising an area larger than Australia, Brazil, Europe, and the United States combined. And although Africa may be weak, it is home to nearly one billion people. Africa, in short, may be poor and weak, but it cannot be ignored. In many respects, the future of our planet lies with the future of Africa. Africa, simply put, is where global attention must be focused if we are to make progress in meeting the MDGs.

But that still leaves open the question of what tools must be summoned in our efforts to succeed. The fact is that the MDGs cannot be achieved without strong capacity to generate and use ST&I and without vigorous and sustained international partnerships to help build this capacity.

Other global issues, which affect the developed and developing world in equal measure, also carry growing significance. Global warming is at the top of this list. But in addition, there are issues related to energy security, access to adequate supplies of drinking water, and the overexploitation of natural resources such as fisheries and forests.

Consequently, the second major challenge is this: How can international collaboration in ST&I assist in solving urgent global problems facing the world today? Reducing the gap between rich and poor countries and ensuring that the most critical global issues are tackled with tools that only global ST&I can provide are daunting challenges that cannot be met unless a critical mass of well-trained scientists is present in all countries.

Today, experts estimate that more scientists who have been educated and trained in universities in sub-Saharan Africa have migrated to the United States than have remained in Africa. Experience has shown that brain drain cannot be stopped unless the most talented scientists find favorable working conditions in their homelands. Once a scientist has left and established roots in another country, it is difficult to lure him or her back home, although China, South Korea, and Taiwan have been exceptions to this rule. Yet, as Rajiv Gandhi, the eldest son of Indira Gandhi and former prime minister of India, has noted: “Better brain drain than brain in the drain.” Experience has also shown that a nation’s scientific diaspora can be tapped through international scientific exchange in ways that could prove beneficial to both the scientists’ host and adopted countries.

So the third challenge for international cooperation in ST&I is this: How can global cooperation assist in converting the brain drain into brain circulation, providing benefits for both scientists and the scientific community regardless of where a scientist was born and where he or she chooses to live and work?

Science is a global enterprise, and excellence in science has always depended on the ability of scientists to associate freely with their colleagues around the world. Such movement not only benefits international science but also serves to deepen international understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity—a welcome byproduct in today’s troubled world. Yet as we all know, the free circulation of scientists, especially to the United States, has been severely restricted since the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001.

The scientific community fully recognizes that security interests take precedence over scientific exchange. Nevertheless, it also recognizes that scientific exchange is an important instrument in the fight against ignorance, suspicion, hopelessness, and terrorism. The U.S. State Department, urged by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and others, has taken steps to ease the burden of entry into the United States for scientists traveling from abroad. But many of our colleagues, particularly those from Africa and the Islamic region, hope that more can be done. Governments in the developing world are also discussing, and in some cases implementing, strategies to facilitate foreign travel by their scientists. For example, earlier this year the foreign ministers of the African Union (AU) endorsed a proposal to grant diplomatic passports to African scientists to ease their travel across Africa.

Although individual scientists from the developing world would benefit directly from these measures, no country would benefit more than the United States. Despite its inhospitable attitudes of the past few years, the United States remains the destination of choice for the most talented students and scientists from the developing world. As critics of the policy within the United States have noted: Many of the nation’s top graduate programs in science and engineering would be severely handicapped if foreign students stayed home. It is also worth pointing out that nearly half of all U.S. Nobel laureates since 1990 are foreign-born.

Therefore, the fourth major challenge is: How can the global scientific community persuade governments, especially the United States, to ease visa problems faced by scientists from the developing world and particularly those from the most impoverished and troubled regions of the developing world?

“Information wants to be free” is the clarion call of those of us who promote its free exchange. But what we often fail to emphasize is that information—that is, quality information—is expensive to produce. In recent years, the Internet and other forms of electronic communication have revolutionized the way in which scientific information is distributed and, increasingly, reviewed, edited, and published. These trends have had an enormously positive impact on global science. Never before have scientists in the developing world enjoyed access to such an extensive amount of current information. Never before have scientists been able to communicate so easily and directly with their colleagues in other parts of the world. And never before has international scientific collaboration been so easy to plan, organize, and implement.

But critical issues remain. Developing countries, particularly the poorest developing countries, often do not have sufficient resources and expertise to build and maintain up-to-date electronic communications systems. Broadband Internet connections are still rare in much of the developing world, and even online subscription rates are too high for many developing-world scientists to have access to the most current literature.

So the fifth challenge is: How does the global scientific community help ensure that scientists in all nations have electronic access to the new information and communication technologies and to the most current scientific literature?

The challenges for international cooperation in ST&I for sustainable well-being are many. I have just touched on the most significant ones. Now I would like to turn to the bright side of the equation: the opportunities for international cooperation, which are no less numerous and no less significant than the challenges. In some cases, they are one and the same.

There are new fields of science and new cutting-edge technologies that promise to have extraordinary impacts on global well-being.

  • Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are not just highly specialized fields in their own right but also enabling forces that help to advance all fields of S&T. ICTs, in fact, have led to a melding of fundamental and experimental research through the facilitation of mathematical modeling.
  • Biotechnology is having a strong impact on agriculture, public health, medicine, and environmental science, transforming each in new and unexpected ways.
  • Nanotechnology promises to revolutionize materials science; to bring physics, biology, and chemistry closer together; and ultimately to have broad-ranging implications in a variety of critical areas, including water, energy, human health, and the environment.
  • Space S&T help us to monitor environmental change (for example, assessing rates of deforestation and desertification) and devise effective responses to a host of ecological problems.

Several developing countries, especially those with growing scientific and technological capabilities, have been eager to embrace and pursue these new technologies. China and Brazil, for example, have partnered on a joint initiative leading to the launch of two satellites designed to chart land and ocean resources. Two more satellites are planned for 2008. Nigeria launched two remote-sensing satellites earlier this decade, and this May it launched its first communications satellite, in collaboration with China.

China is investing substantial sums of money in nanoscience and nanotechnology. That investment is paying off handsomely in terms of publications. In fact, a recent survey found that in 2004 Chinese scientists published the largest number of papers on nanotechnology in international peer-reviewed journals, exceeding the number of papers published by scientists in the United States. Brazil, India, and South Africa are also making substantial investments in nanotechnology.

India’s investment in ICTs is well known. The nation now enjoys world-class status in this field and is home to a number of corporations that rank among the largest and most influential in the world, including Infosys, Wipro, and Tata Consultancy Services. Pakistan, Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, and many other developing countries have invested enormous resources in the development and expansion of ICTs. And let us not forget that South Korea, a nation that in 1962 had a gross domestic product (GDP) of just $2.3 billion (comparable to that of Uganda), embraced information technologies as one of the key sectors in its plans for long-term sustainable growth, first with telephony technologies and more recently with the Internet. Today, South Korea’s GDP exceeds $765 billion and ranks 11th in the world.

Developing countries have also taken significant steps in joining the global biotechnology research community. Malaysia, for example, has embarked on a broad-based biotechnology program to increase national wealth and improve the well-being of its citizens. China has made biotechnology a top priority, launching five large biotechnology research centers. In Africa, Nigeria has developed and is now implementing a national biotechnology policy, and Ghana has drafted a biosafety law that is now awaiting legislative approval. Governments across Africa have acknowledged the need to develop capacity in biotechnology and are now trying to match their rhetoric with action.

All of this adds up to new opportunities for international cooperation in ST&I, opportunities that hold the promise of advancing both science and sustainable well-being across the globe.

Science for the sake of science is no longer sufficient justification for doing science in many parts of the world where budgets are limited. Today, increasing attention is being paid to creating organizations and even disciplines that focus on the complex interactions between human and environmental systems. We have seen this effort unfold in the development of a series of conferences held by the United Nations during the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. And we have seen this in the creation of an international project aimed at linking knowledge to action: the Initiative for Science and Technology for Sustainability (ISTS) at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. TWAS is delighted to be a partner in these efforts, joining the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many other research institutions in the developed and developing world.

ISTS has done an excellent job in articulating the principles of sustainability science and of raising the profile of this concept in the scientific and development communities. It has done an equally impressive job of highlighting examples of sustainability science and creating a broad conceptual framework for understanding why certain institutions devoted to science-based sustainable development succeed, whereas others do not.

In addition to the initiatives in the mid-level nations mentioned above, political leaders in the poorest countries with limited scientific and technological capabilities are also making increasing commitments to R&D and to regional cooperation in S&T. For example, at the AU Summit in January 2007 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, African leaders discussed regional strategies for the promotion of S&T. They announced that 2007 would be the year of “African scientific innovation.” Africa’s leaders have expressed support for S&T in the past, but the meetings were followed by meager results and ultimately disappointment. This time the level of commitment and enthusiasm is different. And this time the results could well be different.

Leaders at the AU Summit strongly recommended that each African country spend at least 1% of its GDP on S&T. Previous pledges to increase S&T spending have not been realized, but prospects are better this time. In fact, several African nations, most notably those that have also embraced democracy and good governance (including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia), have substantially increased their investments in S&T.

THE INTERNATIONAL SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY MUST CONTINUE TO URGE THE G8 COUNTRIES TO FULFIL THE PLEDGES THAT THEY MADE IN GLENEAGLES.

The government of Nigeria, for example, has provided $5 million to launch an endowment fund for the African Academy of Sciences. Nigeria has also announced plans to launch its own national science foundation, modeled after the U.S. National Science Foundation. It has pledged $5 billion to the foundation’s endowment fund, money that is to be derived from revenues generated by the nation’s oil and gas industries. Only one nation in sub-Saharan Africa— South Africa—currently has a national science foundation.

At the AU Summit, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, announced that his country has dramatically boosted expenditures on S&T from less than 0.5% of GDP a few years ago to 1.6% today. He also publicly committed his nation to increase investments in S&T to 3% of GDP within the next five years. That would make Rwanda’s investment in S&T, percentage-wise, comparable to that of South Korea and higher than that of most developed countries. A nation teetering on collapse less than a decade ago and still living in the shadow of genocide has embarked on a path leading to science-based sustainable development. Rwanda remains poor, but it is no longer hopelessly poor.

Last year, Uganda received a $25 million loan from the World Bank to support S&T within the country and the creation of centers of scientific excellence that will serve not only Uganda but also the entire region. The grant was given in part because of Uganda’s successful efforts to build its own scientific and technological capacities, particularly in the fields of public health and agricultural science.

This year, Zambia received a $30 million loan from the African Development Bank to support teaching and research at the University of Zambia and to provide postgraduate fellowships to some 300 students majoring in science and engineering. At the AU Summit, the president of Zambia, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, proclaimed that building capacity in S&T is the only way to develop his country.

The president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, who heads one of the region’s poorest countries, acknowledged at the AU Summit that building scientific and technological capacity provides the only sure way to break the long-standing cycle of extreme poverty that has gripped the African continent for decades.“We have depended on donor countries for scientific development for so long,” he noted.“It is time we commit more resources in our national budget to advance S&T.” He urged his minister of finance to make S&T a budget priority and to provide additional funds for this effort on a sustained basis. He also pledged to create international centers of excellence in the fields of hydrology and biotechnology.

What makes the prospects for international cooperation in S&T for sustainable well-being so promising, even (or perhaps especially) when it comes to Africa, is that the global scientific community will not be acting alone in this effort. Over the past several years, there have been increasing commitments by governments in the developed world, and particularly in G8 countries, to support ST&I in low-income countries and especially in Africa.

In 2005, the Commission for Africa Report Our Common Interest, solicited by the UK’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and published during the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, called on G8 countries to provide $5 billion to help rebuild Africa’s universities. The report also called for investing an additional $3 billion to help establish centers of scientific excellence in Africa. The G8 member countries unanimously pledged to support these recommendations, a decision that was greeted with enthusiasm in Africa and throughout much of the world.

Yet to date, G8 member countries have officially authorized only $160 million of support, targeted for the creation of networks of centers of excellence proposed by the AU’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Equally distressing, little of this money has actually been transferred to Africa. The international scientific community has an important stake in the success of this initiative, and it must continue to urge the G8 countries to fulfil the pledges that they made in Gleneagles.

The World Bank, through the Science Institutes Group, headquartered at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, has provided loans for the creation of Millennium Science Institutes in Brazil, Chile, Turkey, and Uganda. The institutes offer scientists from developing countries an opportunity to conduct world-class research and to pursue cooperative projects with colleagues in a broad range of scientific fields. Several foundations have supported projects in science-poor countries that emphasize scientific and technological capacity building. Many of these efforts have focused on education and training for young scientists in the world’s least developed countries.

Rising levels of scientific excellence in developing countries, most notably Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, have opened new opportunities for South-South collaboration in education and research.

  • For example, agreements have been signed between TWAS and the governments of Brazil, China, India, and Pakistan providing more than 250 scholarships a year to graduate students and postgraduate researchers in poor developing countries to attend universities in the donor countries. TWAS pays for the plane ticket. The host countries pay for all other expenses, including housing and lodging. This is the largest South-South fellowship program in the world.
  • Brazil’s pro-Africa program supports scientific and technological capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa and especially in the Portuguese-speaking countries of Angola and Mozambique. The program includes research collaboration activities with Brazilian institutions.
  • China’s Development Fund for Africa, approved in 2006, will provide $5 billion over the next five years to assist African countries to achieve the MDGs through cooperation with China.
  • The joint Brazil, India, and Senegal Biofuels project in Senegal will seek to transfer Brazil and India’s expertise in the development of biofuels to one of Africa’s most scientifically proficient nations.
  • And the India, Brazil and South Africa tripartite initiative has recently agreed to launch a joint S&T program that will provide funds for joint problem-solving projects focusing on developing products with commercial value.

What does all this rush of activity add up to? Is it just another episode of fleeting interest in countries and people that have been left behind? Or are we entering a new era marked by sustained investments in ST&I, not just in the developed world but increasingly in the developing world as well?

I believe that we have more reason for optimism than cyni cism and that we may indeed be witnessing the beginning of a transformational moment in global science and science-based sustainable development. But for us to seize this moment, we need to develop and implement an action agenda designed to sustain and expand international cooperation in ST&I.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, when issuing its policy summary in February 2007, proclaimed that we had reached a “tipping point” in our understanding of climate change. As Susan Solomon and other scientists who participated in this sterling example of international cooperation in science noted, it was now “unequivocally” true— indeed more than 90% certain—that human activities are responsible for altering our climate and for causing a significant rise in average global temperatures.

We have reached another tipping point as well. It has to do with the growing capabilities in S&T across the globe. These capabilities are rapidly transforming our existing bipolar world of S&T, previously anchored in the United States and Europe, into a multipolar world of science marked by the growing capabilities of Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Turkey, and others.

As the list of developing countries that garner strength in S&T increases in the coming years, the key question is this: Will just a handful of additional countries become scientifically strong, while the rest are left behind? Or will international cooperation in S&T help all countries into the fold, ultimately transforming science-based sustainable wellbeing into a truly global phenomenon?

The answer to this question lies, in part, in how the international scientific community responds to the challenges and opportunities that stand before it. The chances for success have rarely been brighter. The consequences of neglect and indifference have rarely been more troubling. The international science community should seize this moment. If we don’t, it could well fade into history as a lost opportunity that we, as both scientists and citizens, can ill-afford to lose.


Mohamed H. A. Hassan () is executive director of TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, in Trieste, Italy. This article is adapted from his plenary lecture at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Cite this Article

Hassan, Mohamed H. A. “Global Science Gaps Need Global Action.” Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 2 (Winter 2008).

Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Winter 2008