Global Forum: Sustainable Development Linked to Scientific Innovation

January 25, 2010

  • Leading scientists and policymakers exchange ideas on matching technology solutions with local development needs.
  • Scientific capacity is critical to helping countries meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
  • Bank to develop a strategy for global science, technology and innovation partnerships in coming months.

January 25, 2010 —The man from Jaipur had clearly done this before. With a small crowd of people watching, he buckled on his artificial foot for the video camera and climbed a nearby tree with great agility for someone who had lost a foot in a landmine explosion. He then leapt from the tree over a fence and sprinted down a nearby street and back again.

His friends say he can run a kilometer in just over four and a half minutes.

Thanks to a US$28 prosthetic limb, which Time magazine described as one of the best 50 inventions of 2009, the man from Jaipur has returned to normal life as a result of the research and innovation of two local Indian inventors. A comparable artificial limb in the West would cost $20,000 to $30,000.

The Jaipur video made a compelling case for how poor countries can adapt new and existing technologies to solve their local problems without having to import expensive Western-style fixes. It also captured the innovative spirit at the World Bank’s recent Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) Global Forum, which brought dozens of the world’s top scientists, innovators, and policymakers to Washington, D.C. to discuss how to better match practical science and technology solutions with local development needs.

Such solutions can range from cheap but effective artificial limbs to vaccines to solar panels. The sky’s the limit.

Scientific Capacity Needed to Reach MDGs

With five years to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), policymakers are keenly aware that few countries can hope to achieve their development goals without the scientific, engineering, and technical/vocational capacity to handle pressing development issues such as food security, cleaner energy, adaptation to climate change, improving health systems, providing water and sanitation services, generating wealth and jobs, and reducing absolute poverty.

There can be no sustainable solutions to any of these problems if countries do not build the capacity to find and develop appropriate technologies, and modify them for local use.

“Developing countries cannot hope to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy and open trading system if they don’t build the appropriate science, technology, innovation-entrepreneurial, engineering, and technical/vocational capacity to produce more value-added goods and services,” says World Bank STI Coordinator Al Watkins.

Countries Bypass Development Agencies

Everyone agrees that better science and technology is vital, but as Watkins and other World Bank staff at the Global Forum asked, what should the Bank’s role be in this process? The Bank does not have battalions of trained engineers and scientists on staff to help countries build their own capacity.

In fact, many developing countries are bypassing official development agencies and boosting their STI research capacity by partnering directly with universities, private enterprises, think tanks, and research institutes. Development agencies may play a supporting role in facilitating and financing some of these partnerships but, to date, they have not been direct participants in many of them.

“It took 40 years for radio to reach a market of 50 million. Television took 13, the Internet 5, and Facebook took only 2 years”, World Bank Managing Director for Human Development, Graeme Wheeler reminded Global Forum participants, acknowledging the restless nature of ideas and information flows and their link to rising prosperity.

“Our development impact depends on our ability to transfuse innovations bubbling up all over the world to find better ways of doing business – including better lending and risk management products, smarter technical assistance, and cutting-edge knowledge,” Wheeler said.

Not surprisingly, with such leading participants at the Global Forum as Peter Msolla, Tanzania’s Minister of Communications, Science and Technology; Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate and White House science adviser; Professor Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former Science Advisor to the Japanese Cabinet; and Ramesh Mashelkar, President of the Global Research Alliance, promising ideas about the Bank’s future involvement in science, technology and development came from every corner.

Global Science Corps Proposed

For example, Varmus suggested the Bank could back a Global Science Corps, modeled loosely on the Peace Corps, which would deploy large numbers of science and engineering professors and researchers from countries with strong scientific capacity to developing countries for periods of a year or longer.

Corps members would work with local scientists to conduct high quality, locally relevant research and to expand the roster of qualified science and engineering professors in the host countries.

Other ideas included a Technology Transfer Facility which could help developing countries to find technology generated outside the country, license it, or otherwise bring it into the country. Countries could make new technologies available to local researchers, who could modify them for local use, then transfer them to local small and medium enterprises.

A partnership between the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and existing U.S. and European technology groups could do much to help developing country clients build the institutions and skills needed to organize and manage these technology transfers.

Another proposal called for a Regional Science Fund to Promote Pro-Poor Technology, to support South-South scientific collaboration and research to apply technical solutions to high-priority problems in ways that are acceptable to local communities.

Managing Director Graeme Wheeler promised Forum participants that the Bank would devise an action plan in coming months in collaboration with other partners. A comprehensive strategy, partnership arrangements, and dedicated financing mechanism would maximize the development impact of new STI partnership initiatives, he said.

“Given the enthusiasm and diversity of the organizations gathered here … the Bank has an unprecedented opportunity to catalyze a powerful new partnership in support of knowledge-based development," concluded Phillip Griffiths, chairman of the Science Initiative Group, an international team of scientific leaders and supporters dedicated to fostering science in developing countries.