Select Committee on Science and Technology Thirteenth Report


The Department for International Development manages the UK aid budget and works to eliminate world poverty through the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. It is impossible to make sustainable progress towards the Goals without harnessing the potential of science and technology, which as part of a vibrant innovation system can provide a route out of poverty for developing countries. Indeed, scientific and technological capability is critical to enabling developing countries to overcome the trade barriers and quality standards imposed by the world markets. The application of science and technology to agriculture is essential for food security and science and technology are crucial too for the development of new medicines and the systems to deliver them. They also play a pivotal role in delivering adequate water and sanitation facilities, providing sustainable energy sources and ensuring conservation of the natural environment. Furthermore, a scientific, or evidence-based, approach to policy making is an indispensable component of good governance. In this inquiry we sought to determine how DFID is utilising science, technology and research to inform its policy and practice, and how it is supporting developing countries in identifying and meeting their science and technology requirements.

DFID has earned respect worldwide for the quality of its work and we have seen first hand some fine examples of DFID's aid projects during this inquiry. The UK is also rightly praised for the leading role it has taken in emphasising the importance of reducing poverty and encouraging growth and development in the world's poorest economies. Nevertheless, we identified a number of serious weaknesses in DFID's approach to the use of science and technology. DFID suffers from a fundamental lack of scientific culture, reflected in its failure to appreciate the cross-cutting nature of science and hence to reap the full benefits offered by the application of science and technology to development. This may be due, in part, to a lack of in-house expertise in science and research, although the fact that DFID has neglected to collect data on the qualifications and research experience of its staff makes this impossible to assess definitively. DFID's recognition of the need for a Chief Scientific Adviser—made before the final public session of this inquiry by the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn—whilst long overdue, is welcome and should make a significant contribution towards the improvement of DFID's treatment of science and research.

We are concerned that the quality of policy making in DFID may, on occasion, have been compromised by a lack of recognition of the value and role of research and evaluation. Poor links between DFID's Central Research Department and Country Offices and DFID's view that it funds research solely for the global good have impaired DFID's ability to benefit from the research that it commissions and to use the results of this research to inform its own policy development. We are pleased that DFID has been taking steps to strengthen its research and evaluation departments. However, DFID must realise that this will not automatically resolve the problem: culture change is essential.

In order to develop, every country requires access to, and the ability to utilise, scientific knowledge. The frailties in DFID's approach to science, technology and research have had a detrimental effect on the support that DFID provides to developing countries. There is now an urgent need for DFID to commit significant extra funds to capacity building of science and research systems in developing countries, including in the local private sector. Fortunately, the growth in the UK's overseas development budget provides a major opportunity for DFID to address the weaknesses we have identified in its approach to the use of science and technology, without it having to cut other elements of its programme as a result of the recommendations we make in this Report. DFID, however, clearly cannot simply act in isolation: a major international effort with a long-term horizon is also essential for sustainable capacity building to be achieved on the scale required. We recommend that DFID take advantage of the forthcoming UK presidencies of the EU and G8 to call for an international science and technology capacity building strategy, backed up by the necessary resources.

The development sciences community in the UK has contributed enormously to the international development effort. Indeed, the reputation of UK researchers has been instrumental in building DFID's international leadership role. Commendably, DFID has taken the lead in untying overseas aid from the granting of contracts to UK companies. Other countries, however, have not been so magnanimous and there are signs that DFID's approach, which also extends to untying research contracts, may inadvertently be damaging the UK's own capacity to provide development sciences expertise. The current erosion of the UK research base in development sciences is now endangering the future ability of the UK to sustain this leadership role. We recommend that a Development Sciences Research Board be established to safeguard the UK skills and research base in development sciences, and to provide a much needed expansion of the research effort for poverty reduction, basic social and economic development, sustainable growth and the achievement of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, to which the UK is so strongly committed.

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