Science and Technology in Developing World Marked by Cooperation and Contradictions

In his plenary address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco, United States, TWAS Executive Director M.H.A. Hassan illustrated the growing gap between scientifically advanced and scientifically less privileged developing nations.

"The world of science is rapidly changing," says Mohamed H.A. Hassan, "opening up new opportunities for international cooperation in science that will likely accelerate the pace of change in the future."

He made his remarks at a plenary lecture presented before an audience of more than 500 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco. Hassan is the executive director of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, in Trieste, Italy, and president of the African Academy of Sciences in Nairobi, Kenya.

Hassan cited progress in China as the most compelling example of the changing world of science. "As recently as 1994, Chinese scientists accounted for less than 1 percent of the total number of the articles published in peer reviewed scientific journals. Last year, Chinese scientists accounted for 7 percent of the total." Brazil, India, Malaysia, Mexico and South Africa are other developing countries that are making marked progress in their scientific capabilities.

"But the news is not all good," cautioned Hassan. He cited a recent survey conducted by his organization, TWAS, which identified some 77 countries that have failed to strengthen their scientific capacities. Most of these countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa and countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

"Countries falling into this category," Hassan noted, "have poor teaching facilities and substandard laboratories. Researchers lack the capacity to participate in cutting-edge scientific endeavours and many of the most promising young scientists migrate to other nations to pursue their careers. In the majority of these countries, there is minimal government support for science and technology. More generally, there is the absence of a culture of science."

The 57 countries that belong to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) have a population of 1.4 billion people, he noted. That's about 25 percent of the world's population. Yet scientists in these countries account for just 3 percent of the world's share of peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Contradictory trends, Hassan said, are opening up a serious divide among developing countries that is compounding the scientific and technological divide that continues to exist between the developed and developing world. This is particularly the case in sub-Saharan Africa, the region of the world that can least afford to be science-poor. "Forty percent of all Africans," Hassan noted, "do not have access to safe drinking water; 70 percent do not have access to electricity; malaria kills 1 million Africans each year; and 25 million Africans suffer from HIV/AIDS. These issues can only be addressed through applications of and advances in science and technology."

"Some of the world's poorest countries are seeking to bridge the science and technology divide," said Hassan. Nigeria, for example, has pledged US$5 billion to launch a national science foundation and Rwanda has increased its expenditures on science and technology to 1.6 percent of its GDP. Yet most of the world's poorest countries continue to suffer from severe deficiencies in science and technology.

The key question facing the international scientific community in the light of these circumstances, according to Hassan, is "how to take advantage of the rapidly growing capabilities in science and technology in some developing countries to forge international partnerships to help build the capacities of those nations that have been left behind."

Published: 20 Feb 2007

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