UK: Time to rethink science and development

A British research group is urging the world's most powerful nations to link their science policies more closely to development objectives.

The STEPS Centre*, a research group at the University of Sussex, has launched Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto, for the G8 meeting scheduled for later this month in Canada.

The centre's researchers argue that national innovation policies are undermining opportunities for development aid to improve the environment and combat global poverty.

"We live in an era of rapid scientific advance yet poverty is deepening, the environment is in crisis and progress towards the Millennium Development Goals has stalled," they say.

The researchers say governments need to make a radical and urgent shift in the global innovation agenda in order to ensure the future success of development initiatives. They warn the G8 summit is likely to focus on ways to spark a global economic recovery and that could mean a back seat for maintenance of commitments to the poor.

But they also argue the two areas of focus are not mutually exclusive. Innovation can help stimulate economic growth as well as alleviate poverty and contribute to environmental sustainability.

"Meeting the interlinked global challenges of poverty reduction, social justice and environmental sustainability is the great moral and political imperative of our age," said Professor Andy Stirling, Co-director of the STEPS Centre.

"Our vision is a world where science and technology work more directly for social justice, poverty alleviation and the environment. We want the benefits of innovation to be widely shared, not captured by narrow, powerful interests," Stirling said.

"This means reorganising innovation in ways that involve diverse people and groups - going beyond the technical elites to harness the energy and ingenuity of users, workers, consumers, citizens, activists, farmers and small businesses."

The manifesto makes recommendations across five areas: agenda-setting, funding, capacity building, organising; and monitoring, evaluation and accountability.

The recommendations include:

* Establishing national 'strategic innovation fora' that allow diverse stakeholders - including citizens' groups and social movements representing marginalised interests - to scrutinise investments in science, technology and innovation and report to parliaments.

* Establishing an international 'global innovation commission' under a United Nations umbrella to facilitate open, transparent political debate about major technology investments with global or trans-boundary implications, north-south technology transfers and aid geared to science, technology and innovation.

* Requiring public and private bodies investing in science, technology and innovation to increase transparent reporting which focuses on poverty alleviation, social justice and environmental sustainability.

* Increasing investment in scientific capacity building that trains 'bridging professionals' who connect research and development activity with business, social entrepreneurs and users.

* Enhancing incentives for private sector investment in innovation geared towards poverty alleviation, social justice and environmental sustainability, such as advance purchase agreements, technology prizes and tax breaks.

The centre says global annual spending on research and development exceeds US$1 trillion, with military as the single largest expenditure area.

It says the focus urgently needs to shift from private profit and military aims towards more diverse and fairly distributed forms of innovation geared towards greater social justice.

* STEPS stands for Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability.