Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by the
Institute of Physics (Int Dev 10)

1. The Institute of Physics welcomes the opportunity to respond to the important issues raised in this consultation. We consider that effective support to enable developing countries to engage fully in scientific and technological issues is key to achieving many international development goals.

2. We have not sought to try to answer all the questions posed by the consultation, only those where we think learned societies have an important input to make.

Question 1: How does the UK Government support scientific capacity building in developing countries and how should it improve?

3. We have focused in this response on the activities of the Department for International Development (DfID) as the major UK agency for providing support to the developing world. DfID has made some progress in supporting scientific capacity building, but our perception is that this may be overshadowed internally by more obviously immediate issues, for example support for poverty alleviation and a more recent focus on countries where conflict resolution is a priority. It should be emphasised that support for science and technology development is an underpinning – not a competing – priority. It is one of the most important keys to effectively addressing all other development goals, and in particular to tackling the challenges of climate change.

4. We would draw the Committee’s attention to comments recently made by Bill Gates at the G20 summit on the vital importance of supporting innovation for development ( ). Innovation is of course not possible without support for the development of the underpinning capacity to create and assimilate relevant research and technologies.

5. In this context, we are concerned by the lack of visibility of the importance of scientific capacity building in the summary of the recent DfID report UK Aid: Changing Lives and Delivering Results on the conclusions of their Bilateral and Multilateral Aid Reviews.

Recommendation 1: The Institute of Physics believes that support for scientific capacity building needs to be more overtly stated as a development objective by DfID, if it is to be treated as seriously as it deserves in decisions on the allocation of funds.

Question 2: What are the most effective models and mechanisms for supporting research capacity in developing countries?

6. UK learned societies, including the Institute of Physics, have been actively considering this issue. In 2009, a discussion meeting involving a broad spectrum of UK learned societies concluded that many international programmes in scientific capacity building, including those supported by DfID, tend to focus on building research infrastructure, providing relevant education, and supporting research projects. These activities have significant value in that developing country scientists need access to education, laboratories to work in, and research funding for their projects. Such programmes have often included some capacity building support for individuals and related research networks, but have not addressed longer term support needs. We believe this approach is flawed in that the value of underpinning long term scientific networks, which support professional careers and drive much of the way in which science is actually done, has been relatively neglected. This threatens the sustainability of the valuable institutional and other investments made.

7. The discussion meeting also noted the view of American academic Caroline Wagner that international agencies have mistakenly tried to take the existing western model of "big science" and transplant it to the developing world – ignoring the fact that it had taken the western world 200 years to evolve such systems. The networking activities of learned societies were highlighted as having been a very important driver of the historical development process. She concluded that supporting smaller, more organic, networks of scientists in developing countries might be more productive to catalyse similar development processes.

8. Learned societies of every discipline are perhaps in a unique position to contribute to addressing this gap. They are quite different from the many other ways in which science is organised, whether through government funding agencies, universities or science based industries. In essence they are clubs of scientists, whose raison d’être is to provide mutual support and to build capacity in their disciplines. They are not by nature hierarchical, and are naturally organised as extended networks of scientists with strong links at grass-roots level. Many of the well-established societies, founded in the UK to serve their immediate scientific communities, have naturally extended to include an international membership, and have been quietly supporting budding scientists in the developing world before the main international aid agencies woke up to the importance of this. Such activities have not been developed by remote policy makers, but have the advantage of having been driven by the expressed needs of their memberships.

9. Learned societies can address capacity building at many levels in an integrated way, from working with scientists at grass-roots level to advising on science policy at governmental level. Learned societies and their members know how to set up and run scientific journals (many of which are still closely connected to the societies that created them), promote the highest research standards through peer review, run events on topical research issues, provide networking and career development support, train students, work with schools and universities to encourage young people to study and take up careers in science, promote the engagement of women in science and engineering, liaise with industry, and engage with the media and the general public on crucial issues of public concern.

10. We believe that there is a valuable potential opportunity to support the growth of indigenous learned societies in developing countries. The Institute already seeks to do this (see attached summary) as do other learned societies in different disciplines. DfID funding to enable UK learned societies to mentor equivalents abroad, helping them to provide much needed local support to their scientific communities and integrate them into international networks, would be especially useful to allow us to expand these activities and would help DfID meet the capacity building objectives stated in their Research Strategy 2008-2013: Strong and more equal north-south partnerships; access to global research networks and expertise; practical help to ensure that research is high quality; and opportunities for personal and career development within wider organisational support.

Recommendation 2: The Institute of Physics proposes that DfID should provide support to enable UK learned societies to partner and mentor their developing country equivalents.

11. Another issue identified at the 2009 discussion meeting was the perception that DfID prefers to fund large scale initiatives and lacks the flexibility to provide support for smaller scale programmes. Although this approach may be attractive in terms of administrative economies of scale and perceived added impact of highly visible major investments, it lacks the ability to test new approaches in a low risk way and rules out promising, small-scale projects like those the Institute sponsors through our IOP for Africa programme, which offer excellent value for money (see attached summary).

12. Learned societies have had the flexibility to be able to support innovative small-scale initiatives, and have therefore been able to respond in a timely way to ideas being generated by scientists in developing countries. However, surveys of capacity building initiatives in learned societies, conducted by the Royal Society and the UK National Commission for UNESCO (UKNC) in 2007 and 2009, indicated that because of lack of funding many such programmes, though successful, remained small. This means that it has not been possible effectively to build on success. The best initiatives start small and are enabled to evolve to meet real local needs. Donors should have funding programmes that can cope with flexibility, diversity and small applications.

Recommendation 3: The Institute of Physics proposes that DfID’s funding mechanisms should be sufficiently flexible to enable small scale pilots with successful outcomes to be scaled up where appropriate.

Question 5: How are government activities co-ordinated with the private and voluntary sectors?

13. The Institute can only comment on this question from the perspective of learned societies in the third sector. Our experience is that there is no obvious gateway to co-ordinating our efforts in international development with government activities, and indeed the many small initiatives undertaken by individual learned societies would also benefit from a co-ordinated approach.

Recommendation 4: The Institute of Physics would encourage DfID to consider how to engage the learned societies in a forum which facilitates their involvement in the international development agenda. In particular DfID’s Chief Scientific Advisor should actively engage with UK learned societies on this issue.

14. The Institute has also noted the creation of an independent watchdog to scrutinise DfID’s activities ( We emphasise the importance of representation of the scientific community on this body (the Independent Commission for Aid Impact), to facilitate co-ordination and provide guidance on capacity building issues.

Recommendation 5: The Institute of Physics recommends that the science and engineering community should be represented among the membership of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.


E. Bell Science, Technology and Innovation: International Capacity Building for Sustainable Growth - A Preliminary Concept Paper (2009)

E. Bell & C. White Sharing our Experience: Report of a Discussion Meeting on International Capacity Building by UK Learned Societies on 2nd June 2009 at The Royal Astronomical Society London.

Caroline Wagner, The New Invisible College: Science for Development ( )

Attachment: Physics for a better world – a summary of Institute of Physics international programmes [1]

Institute of Physics

15 December 2011


Prepared 22nd December 2011