Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

23 FEBRUARY 2004

PROFESSOR MELISSA LEACH, MR SIMON MAXWELL, DR GORDON SMITH, PROFESSOR IAN DIAMOND AND MR ANDREW SCOTT

  Q80 Chairman: We might need another Tsar. Give Bill Gates the job.

  Professor Diamond: I would just like to point out I do not know why the ESRC does not have a concordat with DFID, it has concordats which many other government departments which work very, very well. We have revised them in the last year or so strongly to move away from being a cup of tea and a rich tea biscuit once a year to something that is action happening, and I can give you examples of how they work in a proper way. We are expecting to have one with DFID but DFID prefers to wait until after it has finished its review of how its research effort is going to take place before we get together. I am expecting to have a concordat during 2004 with DFID.

  Q81 Chairman: It seems to me that all roads lead to DFID and its unwillingness to participate in a very up-front way in making it happen. Would that be fair?

  Professor Diamond: I would not say that was fair. Certainly within months of taking up my role I sat down with the new Director of Research on the social side and had a very profitable meeting. The agreement was when DFID really got its view together on how its research was going we would have a concordat and I am expecting that during 2004, as I say.

  Q82 Mr McWalter: It is interesting that when we were asking the questions Dr Smith was sitting there smiling. Have you cracked it really in that you have got what we are trying to invent?

  Dr Smith: The reason I was smiling is because the problem sounded familiar generally. For quite a long while I was in charge of something called "Machinery of Government" in our Cabinet Office, and these kind of problems appear in Canada as well. I think in the case of technology for development they probably occur less. In fact, it works quite well. What I was really thinking was in the end, certainly in our case, when you really need to knock heads together to get Government departments working together, ultimately there is only one force that can make that happen in my country, and that is the Cabinet Office.

  Q83 Mr McWalter: What we find here in DFID and also in the Cabinet Office and, indeed, throughout most of Government is that there is an absence of a culture of interest in science. It is very hard to get people who have a science or engineering background to be in Government at all for the most part and certainly in DFID that is true. Do you have that problem as well in Canada, or have you managed to get more recognition of the important value of science for the processes of Government?

  Dr Smith: Certainly in terms of the importance of science for development we have, which is, as I say, why the Government of Canada created this body in 1970. More broadly for a long while we were quite successful in Canada. If I look at departments like those that deal with energy and transportation and the environment, we went through a period of major cutbacks in the 1990 when a lot of that capacity was lost, and I think we are now in the process of starting to build that back up again, but I am really not expert enough on how that works in the rest of the Government. In the area of technology and development, however, researchers are very much at home. Scientists are very much at home working with the IDRC, both those who are Canadian and those who are foreign.

  Q84 Dr Iddon: Is there not something missing here? I have worked in India and Tanzania and when I was in East Africa I was horrified by what I saw. There was loads of money going into different countries, with some people just dumping the money and leaving and saying, "Do something with that", with the people there trying to build capacity. But what I noticed was there was a total absence of integration between the different countries. They were all there for their own vested interest, frankly. They all wanted to make an impression so that Tanzania traded with Denmark or the United Kingdom. Is there not an international angle missing here where countries should, frankly, work together rather than as independent countries for their own vested interest?

  Mr Maxwell: The easy answer is yes, and the focus on poverty reduction strategy papers is about trying to encourage developing country ownership and having not lots of projects but one central government policy and one central government budget which many donors then support, and DFID has been at the forefront of this and has strongly encouraged it. A lot of donors have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table because they want to see the flag and the projects. The argument ought to be extended also to the international level and IDRC in particular has done a lot of very good work on international networks, helping countries and regions to take control of their research agendas.

  Dr Iddon: I am glad you mentioned India, Mr Maxwell, because India is probably a spectacular example of how S&T can help develop a country face-to-face with extreme poverty. I have seen richness in India and poverty, but one thing is clear about India—they worship science and technology. That is pretty obvious and it has resulted in success. What do you think are the main reasons for the spectacular success that India has had? You have mentioned investment, but what are the other reasons?

  Mr Maxwell: India has not had the same spectacular success that China and some other countries have had but it may now be taking off. India after independence had a very strong commitment to central planning and to industrialisation, and it took them some time to realise that the immediate leap to industrialisation was not going to deliver poverty reduction on a large scale, but the legacy of that was a very strong science base and it is something that other countries will learn from. Now, not every country is going to have that science base, so an interesting question is how they can leapfrog technologically. The way in which mobile phones have spread in Africa can transform local markets for poor people, and that can be a technology which is imported. I met some South African business people who at the time of the last African World Football Cup had taken a container to Mali where the championship was taking place, and in a weekend they had unpacked and set up 25,000 mobile telephones so that people could follow football scores on their mobiles. South Africa was running it on a technology that was imported, but enabled the technological leap which completely transformed communications in Mali. So you need the science base but you also need the science and the technology coming in.

  Q85 Dr Iddon: Could our other witnesses say what are the most important factors in ensuring the most effective method of building S&T capacity in each country? Can we build a few ideas together, and what should the British Government should be doing?

  Dr Smith: I will stop short at what the British Government should be doing but let me make a suggestion or two in response to that question. One of the things we do in the IDRC, and I was at meetings with the Secretary General of the OECD last week in Paris to discuss whether this could be on a broader scale, is we do surveys of the state of scientific research in developing countries as part of our five year strategic planning process. We also have officers in the field and we go through a process of consultation and deliberation which ultimately goes through the board of Governors, so I think that it requires some front end work to assess what the state of capacity is and what the priorities are, and this is the sort of thing that again, as Simon Maxwell has said, ought not be to done in a competitive or duplicating way but ought to be brought together, and I was suggesting to the OECD that it might play a role in that regard.

  Professor Diamond: I think in some countries you would be fairly quick to see that capacity, for all sorts of reasons, is extremely small and what we need to do is have a long-term commitment to do something about that. There is no difficult answer to this: it is quite simply saying we believe that it is worth engaging in science and technology for the good of that particular country, that we all are prepared to work together and we are not going to come in for two years on physics and then say, "No, it was not physics; gosh, it must have been psychology", and go to psychology. We are going to stick with this for 10 years, monitor it properly and make sure it happens. We must have a long-term commitment to developing the networks and capacity in a particular place. Now, with the worldwide web and issues like that, it is much easier to keep people at the cutting edge of technology through being able to read the literature. When I worked in, for example, in Ghana in the 1980s and went to the library the last journal was from the 1960s or 70s, so there were real problems. These can be overcome now in a much more easy way, given commitment.

  Q86 Dr Iddon: Are we too far ahead in technology, do you think? We are at the cutting edge. Are we so far ahead that we cannot see the simple problems that developing countries have to solve? Would it not be better for the most developed of those under developed countries to pass the technology down? Are we the wrong people to try to get that technology in? Are we thinking in a different box?

  Professor Diamond: There is a huge role for south south but also for north south. It is a question of getting the networks together and the partnerships in the appropriate areas. There is no one-size-fits-all model here.

  Q87 Dr Iddon: You worked in Dar and so did I. There is nobody producing soap in Dar Es Salaam and nobody producing soap in Tanzania. I have a colleague out there and I was trying to persuade him to set up a simple soap factory, but it was easier to import western soap products and bring it in than to produce it in the country for various reasons. The basic chemicals were not there for a start. How do you get round those difficult problems?

  Mr Scott: This point raises a very interesting element to the fact that the science and technology capability that we need to think about is not just about research but about how the information about new techniques, about different techniques, both from the north and the south are made available. It is about thinking in terms of science, technology and innovation in a systemic way so that we are making the connections between what goes on in research both in industrialised countries and in developing countries, linking that with what goes on in the private sector, what goes on in the Government sector in terms of policy-making for science and technology, and also linking that with what goes on in terms of the vast amount of innovation that takes place in communities, completely isolated from the formal science and technology world that does often contribute to making a real difference to the lives of poor women and men in poor communities. It is a question of making the information available as well as being a question of what is available, for instance, in terms of soap-making, which is a relatively straightforward technology. It is also looking at the economic and social barriers and incentives that enable new technologies also to be adopted; it is not just a question of thinking about research capacity.

  Q88 Dr Iddon: Do you think we are trying to impose our S&T capacity on those countries or do we meet their requirements? Do they know, in fact, what they need? I am sure the answer to that is "Yes". I would hope so.

  Professor Leach: I think a key role for capacity building is enhancing that capacity to think critically about what is needed. It is very often the case that developing countries have been at the behest either of development programmes or, indeed, of the private sector in having technologies foisted upon them through technology transfer or private sector investment, and what is badly needed, and I think this is the role for public sector funded research, is both creating and helping transfer the technologies which will meet those needs and also fostering the capacity to access those technologies. That requires getting involved in institutional issues at the national and international level, and also spins out of the arena of science and technology itself into negotiations within the World Trade Organisation, negotiations around TRIPS and intellectual property rights and negotiations around bio safety issues, and there is an important role for capacity building there in building the ability of developing countries to negotiate their interests in some of those international fora so they can access science and technology on terms appropriate to them.

  Dr Smith: I would like to add that I think the developing countries often know what their problems are. Let me give you an illustration again of something we do in the IDRC. There is an increasing problem as large cities become larger in feeding the populations in those cities, so we have listened and concluded that one of the priority problems we should deal with is cities feeding people. So, the people do not necessarily know what the answer is to that problem but when you know there is a problem in getting the food into cities you can then try to work on what you can do with rooftop gardens, small gardens outside a house, how you deal with water, waste disposal—whatever else you may need to do. So you focus at the level of the problem and then you look at what the applicable technology might be.

  Mr Maxwell: Can I just say that anybody who has read your reports, which I have selectively, including the last two annual reports, will know this is not a problem confined to developing countries. The question of how to turn good research into growth, progress, social inclusion and poverty reduction is a challenge all around the world. What it means is that government must not just invest in ivory tower research, but also in application, in helping the firms that will innovate, in the patent law that is available to countries, in the infrastructure and a whole set of other things. This means that when we talk about capacity development in developing countries we are not just talking about universities and research centres but about national systems of innovation. The British experience could be applied with great benefit to many developing countries.

  Q89 Dr Iddon: When Dr Turner was asking questions earlier the millennium goals came up. Can I ask whether you see those as an obstacle or an aid to building S&T capacity in developing countries?

  Mr Maxwell: The chief economist of DFID is wont to say that we should take the millennium development goals seriously but not literally, and I think that is a very good maxim. They have had enormous benefit in terms of giving political focus to the development programme and to the aid programme and in raising public support for it, and I have to say that I think we owe Clare Short a great debt for her energy in taking the millennium development goals out into the international community. Clearly, however, if you are only focused on meeting narrow, quantitative goals of primary education and so on it is possible to lose sight of the wood for the trees, and one has to ask oneself how one is going to reduce poverty. My own view is that developing countries face unprecedented social and economic challenges which they cannot begin to tackle without having a strong research base, so if you want to reduce maternal mortality you need a science base and we need to make that additional leap. I would add too that we should not underestimate what DFID contributes to research. DFID is a knowledge-rich organisation in the social sciences as well as in the natural sciences, has been a leader internationally and is recognised as such for its investment and internal capacity.

  Q90 Mr McWalter: One of the issues that has been raised there is that clearly one solution to poverty is to trade your way out of it but you need very high skills to be able to trade because if you want to move away from producing pineapples to producing pineapple juice and you have a World Trade Organisation which will say, "Sorry, we are not going to take your pineapple juice because it does not meet our FDA standards", or whatever, then the door gets slammed on people being able to make those moves. Clearly you have to have a significant amount of scientific expertise back in the developing country to be able to challenge those sorts of judgments and to be able, if appropriate, to apply a corrective to the pineapple juice so it finally does meet these standards. You have commended DFID to us, and I am sure it did change dramatically under Clare Short's management, but do you see any evidence that it has taken that kind of agenda and really made the input that would mean that those countries could have a hope of eventually trading their way out of their difficulties?

  Mr Scott: If I could respond to that, there is certainly evidence from within DFID for support to the kinds of initiatives that would result in the production of pineapple juice, support that tackles the issues of ensuring that there is sufficient quality to meet export standards. Where perhaps I would suggest DFID does need a little bit more attention is in thinking about the capacity building on the Government side to be able to undertake the kind of negotiations you were suggesting at an international level. DFID is putting a significant amount of resource into capacity building in developing countries for them to be able to engage in WTO-type negotiations and I would think that science and technology needs to be part of that, but there are many examples of the kind of support DFID does do that involves export orientation, that does look at regulation of trade, appropriate standards and so on. My own organisation gets support from DFID to do some of that ourselves.

  Q91 Chairman: So do international intellectual property get in the way of capacity building? Is that what you are saying, or indicating? Can you give examples of that?

  Mr Scott: Intellectual property rights can prevent access to appropriate knowledge which means that it makes it more costly or more difficult for developing country institutions, both public and private, to access the knowledge that is currently available within their competitors. There is a good argument to say that a lot of knowledge is in the public domain: increasingly that knowledge is being privatised and, in a sense, being taken away from the public domain and that does also then prevent developing countries from taking opportunities that were available to them in the past.

  Q92 Chairman: I am not clear really if we are saying that DFID is supporting an S&T network in developing countries or not. Are you saying they are or are not?

  Mr Scott: My feeling is that DFID at a sectoral level is very strong in science and technology and they do support networks in agriculture, infrastructure, energy and so on. Where they have a weakness from where I am sitting is in the technology policy issues and in the support they give to developing country governments for them to be able to develop their own science, technology and innovation policies.

  Mr Maxwell: DFID spends £130 million a year on research of which a good chunk is spent through country programmes, £30 or £40 million a year, designed to strengthen capacity in developing countries. This is not negligible. There probably could be a much more focused sectoral look in agriculture, health and other sectors at what kind of national system of innovation is there and what kind of capacity is needed, but I would say that the responsibility is not only DFID's and, in the spirit of joined-up Government, there are a number of other research funding bodies in the United Kingdom which have very important things to say about technology and science in developing countries. It should not just be the responsibility of the aid programme; much of the work done in our national research centres has the character of a global public good and we should be judging our institutions, especially in a globalising world, by the extent to which they contribute to finding global solutions.

  Professor Leach: There is also a lot of cross-learning that could go on with the kind of work on technology policy that is being done in northern industrialised countries which, for instance, is being taken forward by Defra but has a much longer history in the national innovation systems here, currently, for example, under the auspices of the ESRC Science in Society research programme and Sustainable Technologies programme. There is a lot of very useful thinking about how science and technology relates to publics, how questions of uncertainty are dealt with in policy, about ways of democratising science to meet the agendas of society, which has an awful lot to say to developing countries and which strikes many chords with the kind of work on participation and citizen engagement in development which DFID has taken forward around other issues, not around science and technology. So there is enormous scope here for encouraging some joined-up thinking about technology policy agendas and about how science relates to society within different countries north and south and, indeed, all countries as they relate to this increasingly globalised world of international system, from which many do benefit.

  Professor Diamond: We are talking about United Kingdom science policy and through the research councils a huge amount of really important research is going on that is important to developing nations, a lot of which is taking place in the very best departments. For example, the ESRC funds a number of projects on development economics which sit within the very best economics departments in the country and are at the absolute cutting edge of economic research, and it is terribly important that that continues and is seen as complementary to some of the projects in developing countries.

  Q93 Chairman: I just spent five days last week in Cuba and I was quite impressed in Latin America, in the medical school, how they are developing the interactions by the continent. They are going into every African country and making sure that every country had its whack of science and technology. I do not get the feeling that that is happening with DFID. They go country by country and not nation by nation in the big network field. Is that true?

  Mr Maxwell: DFID is quite a big funder of some multilateral initiatives on science and technology—

  Q94 Chairman: For example?

  Mr Maxwell: The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research which has a network of 25/30 international research institutes. DFID has just announced a big increase in that funding, and there is quite a lot to be said for trying to do as much of this as possible multilaterally for the reasons raised earlier to do with economies of scale and reducing transactions costs. In terms of mobilising Britain to participate, I am here partly on behalf of the Development Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and we have something in excess of 80 different research centres and departments represented in our inventory. One of the complaints I hear a lot from people especially in the university sector is about the conflicting signals they receive from the different research funders in the UK. A very good example of that is that Professor Diamond's organisation has, very rightly in our view, emphasised user usefulness and user involvement in research planning and so on whereas the Higher Education Funding Council, which also provides money for research, emphasises almost entirely publication in peer written journals. DFID, which is another important funder in our sector, is emphasising country level utility almost exclusively. So, imagine you are a researcher sitting in one of these 80 odd centres and you are trying to put together a livelihood and do good research and be useful to the world, but are dealing constantly with different kinds of signals and trying to balance all these different funding sources in what has in one of these 80 odd centres and you are trying most of our research funding now comes through competitive models. I run a research institute which has 55 researchers, a turnover of £8.5 million, 135 different contracts with DFID every year, all of them pretty well competitive, and enormous transactions costs. It is very difficult to balance all these different interests. One of the models that we have seen in other countries that seems to work very well is the partnership agreement, and we are hoping to talk to DFID about the particular kind of partnership agreement, but the long term five year/10 year funding partnership agreement is a model that I really would encourage the Committee to consider as a model, alongside the funding forums.

  Professor Diamond: Picking up on the capacity issue there, there is capacity within this country for researchers to work with developing countries because—and it is a point that Simon made very well—in United Kingdom higher education publications in peer review journals are almost everything, and very often researchers working on some of the best development studies and institutes spend an enormous amount of time producing path-breaking research in a report to, shall we say, the government of X, and often that is not seen within their institution as being the sort of publication that is wanted.

  Q95 Chairman: Having sat on appointment and promotion committees, you could not take them into consideration—not that you are going to get anything in the RAE either.

  Professor Diamond: Exactly so, and in a different forum I have argued very strongly about the RAE doing this. Also I have written letters about not promoting people in these areas who have done a lot of great work. This is an issue in encouraging people to believe this is a worthwhile career in the United Kingdom.

  Q96 Dr Iddon: One of the questions we have not really faced you with is we are assuming Government is the main vector for technology transfer but, of course, we have a lot of international companies operating out of this country and others out of other countries. What role do you think the international companies could or should be playing in building capacity in the under-developed countries?

  Professor Diamond: Building capacity for science?

  Q97 Dr Iddon: Yes. S&T.

  Professor Diamond: I think there is an enormous potential role but you will be aware from the data which the Chancellor has shown and from Richard Lambert's review that United Kingdom industry investment in basic research is relatively low, so I think there is an enormous amount to be done more broadly, not just in developing countries, and working in those countries, it seems to me, very simply as part of what is increasingly becoming social responsibility should be engaging and making sure the long-term sustainability is there.

  Mr Scott: The Committee is aware that most R&D in the world is done within the private sector, not the public, and the same applies in developing countries. The issue that we need to deal with here is that most large companies, whatever the sector, will have their own science and technology capability building processes going on in developing countries because they need the scientific and technical capacity to run their operations. What I think we need to think about from the point of view of international aid policy is the extent to which those corporate interests are likely to be developing science and technology capacity geared towards poverty reduction, and the answer is likely to be that they are not aimed specifically at reducing poverty and inequality in developing countries, and that is where the public sector needs to come in and support so that science and technology is available to people in poor communities.

  Q98 Paul Farrelly: I clearly recognise that commercial companies are not going to be entirely altruistic in promoting development of science capacity. At the beginning of the 1990s I was privileged to work for Reuters when the Berlin Wall fell down and after the collapse of the wall Reuters, through their charity and foundation, set out to bring journalists from behind the old Iron Curtain and train them, and this was development in a free media which they were not used to whatsoever. Clearly that was entirely altruistic because it helped the Reuters brand; it helped train a generation of journalists, and it had future spin-offs for the company that were not quantifiable. In the public sector, with DFID in particular, might there be specific examples where there might be an incentive for our government to help train and build capacity in areas that will have perhaps not quantifiable benefits but benefits for this country.

  Professor Diamond: If you visit a number of countries which have very senior members of their Government who were trained in this country in the 1960s, for example, then you see the long-term benefit to this country of investment of that sort, and for very many reasons a lot of those opportunities have disappeared in recent years. I personally believe it is purely an impressionistic view that the next generation does not have that same United Kingdom focus. This is, again, a long-term goal but there is a huge long-term investment for the United Kingdom that can be gained in training.

  Q99 Paul Farrelly: Can you give examples?

  Professor Diamond: For example, training PhD students and doctors in this country with a view to getting them back into their country with proper support and real long-term United Kingdom focus, and long-term benefits of partnership with the United Kingdom.

  Mr Maxwell: We are hoping, to negotiate a partnership agreement with DFID about building capacity in developing countries to engage in public debate about development in a way that it is minded to create an institute that organises public meetings with all party parliamentary groups. For example, there should being little ODIs in developing countries. What we are hoping to use our DFID money for, fingers crossed, if we get it, is to build long-term partnerships, and I do think twinning is a very good way to go about this.


 
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