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Innovation and Development

mdg.jpgThe United Nations Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation thinks there's a better way to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Three years in the making, their new report, "Innovation: Applying Knowledge In Development" (PDF), is a weighty tome, coming in at just under 200 pages. It takes a hard look at the relationship between efforts in scientific research (and technological innovation) and the breadth of economic development. I'm not done reading it, but I can already tell it will be an important contribution to the debate on the best approaches to development. I can also already see some places where it has blind spots.

The few news stories about the report (none, as far as I can find, in the major US media) emphasize its key conclusion, one with which we are in full agreement: scientists and technology experts should play a role in steering a nation's development as large as, if not larger than, the role played by economists. This is backed up in the report by good historical evidence. Nations where a scientific advisor plays a key role in government decision-making have a better track record of development.

Many of the present structures arise from outdated economic thinking, [Task Force leader Dr. Calestous] Juma says. ''It was thought that the main sources of economic change were land, labour and capital,'' he told IPS. ''But now science and technology is the driving force behind economic transition. And changes in the world of science and technology are coming much faster than in the world of land, labour and capital.''


''Putting science at the centre of government decision-taking is politically significant both in the developing and the industrialised world,'' Juma said. [...] But science can deliver quick and more dramatic benefits in the developing world. ''Jamaica has a well established mechanism of scientific advice to the prime minister's office,'' Juma said. ''In human health Jamaica now records the same longevity as industrialised countries because of the use of science in the health system.''

The report focuses on four key recommendations:

  • The creation of science and technology advisory groups at the national level;
  • Greater investment in local institutions of higher learning, and their greater involvement in the service of community and national development;
  • The strengthening of programs to encourage and support business development;
  • Greater investment in infrastructure -- communication, information, energy, transit -- as the underpinnings of technological innovation.

    The report, at least upon first review, has two glaring omissions.

  • Firstly, the term "open source" appears only once in the entire document, and then only as "open source material" in a discussion of the value of open access research. The utility of open source is never mentioned, either in terms of Free/Open Source Software as a useful tool for low-expense, high-value infrastructure development or in terms of open source as a broader model for scientific research. While scientific and technological advice at the national level is certainly critical, and the encouragement of scientific and technological business development of definite importance, it's hard to imagine an effective technology development policy which does not take advantage of both the low cost of free software and the social benefits of open, collaborative efforts.

    Secondly, the report seems almost hesitant about the implications of their recommendations. It's not surprising that they don't talk about "leapfrogging," but they don't seem (again, at first review) to consider going beyond simply replacing Western aid. The four key recommendations, for example, are perfect for accelerating a nascent biotech/nanotech industries, as these technologies depend less on a heavy industrial base and more on well-educated researchers and a robust information infrastructure. Development doesn't have to just mean catching up; it can also mean moving ahead.

    Comments (1)

    Joao Paulo:

    Frank Moulaert and Jacques Nussbaumer recently published a document on the European Urban and Regional Studies Journal in which they advance some sort of community-oriented territorial approach to innovation, instead of the very top-down, economic and technologically deterministic manner we see today.


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