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THE CHALLENGE OF RELEVANCE; 1980s CHALLENGE OF THE SCIENCES

Back when astronauts were bounding across the moon, a typical cartoon of the day showed a third-world peasant, behind his bullock plow, gazing up at a beeping satellite. It raised a popular antiscience question: How "relevant" is it to explore outer space, probe the ocean's bottom, monitor hybernating bears, or check out pigeon navigation when the biggest unknown facing millions of people is how to get enough to eat?

That cartoon could aptly be rerun today. But its point would have a new and far more incisive thrust. It's not a question of the usefulness of arcane research, but of who reaps it inevitable profits in an inequitable world.

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Few informed people took the question of relevance very seriously in its old form. The benefits, as well as the hazards, flowing from scientific research are obvious enough. Even the cartoon's symbolism was self-contradictory, for satellites have paid off handsomely in terms, for example, of weather-watching, resource management, and communications -- benefits that at least touch the lives even of peasants in remote third-world villages. The question of relevance, however, involves more than "what benefits?" It asks more sharply, "Who benefits? How long can the research-and-development enterprise remain a rich man's game?"

This is the issue of relevance that the 1970s brought into focus and that will nag even more insistently in the 1980s, however much a renewed cold war and warmed-up arms race may tend to distract attention from it. "The stage is now set for more direct involvement of the world science and technology communities in assisting the less-developed countries . . .," observes Dr. Thomas F. Malone, foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences.

At a simplistic level, the disparity of benefits is symbolized by the fact that only six countries -- Britain, France, Japan, West Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union -- spend 85 percent of the funds and deploy 70 percet of the experts that the world devotes to research and development. The developing nations, with 72 percent of mankind, account for less than 3 percent of the funding and less than 13 percent of the skilled personnel.

One can make too much of these statistics. There is no global pool of R&D money and experts upon which all nations draw and which the "big six" somehow have cornered. The figures are only the sums of individual national efforts that reflect the priorities of sovereign governments in the allocation of their resources, plus some agreed-upon international programs. Furthermore, developing countries do themselves a disservice when they stridently accuse industrial nations of monopolizing world science, since they have themselves to blame for many of their troubles. For among the rich who benefit from modern technology are the elites who sit on top of many developing nations.

"Their overall scientific and technological position is not only a result of the colonial past, the neocolonial present, and the depressing state of world economic relations . . ." says Miquel S. Wionczek. "Many of their technological problems orginate from a socially harmful allocation of resources, as demonstrated by the income distribution patterns and the expenditures on arms and other 'consumption' goods, rather than from an absolute lack of resources," explains Mr. Wionczek, senior research associate at El Colegio de Mexico, in assessing this point in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Commenting on last summer's Bucharest Declaration of the "Group of 77" developing countries, he observes: "Members of the Group of 77 could have made their case for international funding of science and technology for development much more convincing by committing themselves firmly to the development of their scientific and technological capacity through their own efforts. . . .[This] would have involved, however, much painful soul-searching, urgent domestic reforms, and allocating more locally available resources for science and technology. It would also have meant questioning the fashionable and easy solutions based upon the assumption that money and free worldwide access to scientific and technological information can do away with the domestic secular backwardness of science and technology in most of the group's member states. Money and freedom of access might be helpful, but they are not an automatic guarantee of painless advancement toward the heaven of general welfare or the paradise of power."

Such hard-nosed realism gives badly needed perspective. But it doesn't let the scientifically advanced nations off the hook. They have skills, knowledge, and technical resources that must be shared if the benefits of science and technology are to be enjoyed by more of the world's people. The question is, how to do this wisely and effectively?

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"The back lots of communities all over the third world are littered with the rusted remains of what development experts considered 'best' for the people," warns John Ashworth, a policy analyst with the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colo. Also, industrial countries cannot be expected to give away patents and technology; that would merely create competition and undercut the jobs of their own people. The need is for developed and developing countries to work together to find more effective ways to spread the benefits of science -- a need emphasized by the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development in Vienna last August.

That conference has been widely considered a dismal failure that is best forgotten. The most charitable thing that could be said of the empty platitudes and unrealistic demands for giveaways of money and technology that were raised during its sessions was that they were "romantic" -- an assessment attributed to a Soviet delegate. The most positive result was a somewhat vague promise from industrialized countries of better funding in the future, including a $250 million UN fund to help strengthen the scientific infrastructure of developing countries -- a fund for which pledges soon are to be asked -- and a new UN intergovernmental committee.

However, the Vienna conference should not be dismissed lightly, Dr. Malone warns. He says that critics who do so "are untutored in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured, strengthened, and made to flourish." He sees the conference, with all its faults, as the beginning of a new order of global cooperation. "The world science and technology community appears ready for mobilization" in such an effort, he says. Also, he notes, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, A quantum increase in science and technology competence within the developing nations was evident in Vienna, and cooperation among these states is the order of the day."

William D. Carey, executive officer of the American Associaton for the Advancement of Science, also found the UN conference to be a sounding board for an insistent new challenge. Assessing it in Science magazine, he said: "Although the Vienna meeting with its thousands of participants did not display the exquisite displomatic theater that scientists thought they might find in the city of Metternich, it mirrored powerfully the rising turmoil in the relationships between the struggling human majority and the preoccupied minority. The message from the developing nations was explicit: that they would no longer accept the trickle-down method of scientific and technological transfer that suits the advanced countries. . . .

"They also bracketed the superpowers -- capitalist and socialist alike -- as equally to blame for diverting scientific and technical expertise into a mindless arms race. It was an indictment with telling effect. As almost nothing else could, it etched the contradictions in the main trends of current history: surging self-consciousness on the part of hte emerging majority, contrasted with a rush to the edge of night by the superpowers. The limits of knowledge in managing peaceful change have seldom seemed so clear."

How, then, is the challenge to be met? There are no experts with ready answers. All are fumbling, looking for modest, yet meaningful, next steps -- aware, in Dr. Malone's words, that they are dealing with "issues important to the very survival of humanity." He urges the scientific community to "add to its traditional preoccupation with advancing knowledge a dimension concerned with the application of that knowledge to the societal problems of an increasingly independent world." And he sees "encouraging signs that this is happening."

Mr. Carey expects that "quieter and better things will be done . . . through bilateral projects, specialized agencies, industrial approaches based on partnership principles, and the work of concerned scientists of both North and South." He adds, realistically, that "there will be no dismantling of the vast advantage in science and technology enjoyed by the advanced nations over the developing world. Modest steps will be taken, and some good will be achieved on this scale. But these are times when the advanced economies are themselves troubled and preoccupied with their internal problems of inflation, energy, productivity, and the worries of an unstable peace. Meanwhile, a wind is rising."

A Pakistani physicist, Abdus Salam, has put the challenge in a different, and provocative, perspective in pleading for international centers of learning. These would be centers where scientists from developing countries could meet and work with counterparts from scientifically advanced nations -- places such as the International Center for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy, which he heads. Writing in Nature magazine after he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, he reminded readers that Western ascendency in science is a temporary historical epoch.

In the 13th century, Dr. Salam wrote, the rich and scientifically advanced world meant such countries as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, and Syria. The Islamic world maintained international centers of learning at Cordoba and Toledo, in Spain, where scolars gathered to share in "the finest synthesis of Arabic, Greek , Latin, and Hebrew scholarship." They included a few lonely scientists from the backward but developing nations of Europe.

"Then, as now," he noted, "there were obstacles to this international concourse, because of economic and intellectual disparity betwen different parts of the world. Men like Michael the Scot and his contemporary, Alfred the Englishman, were singularities. They did not represent any flourishing school of research in their own countries. With all the best will in the world, their teachers at Toledo doubted the wisdom and value of training them for advanced scientific research. At least one of his masters counseled young Michael to go back to clipping sheep and to the weaving of woolen cloths."

Yet Europe did develop scientifically and the "advanced" countries stagnated. Now, Dr. Salam is urging international support under stable UN auspices for new learning centers to help today's "developing nations." He explains:

"There are two prerequisites to this renaissance [of science in developing countries]: one, the availability of places like Toledo for international concourse, where one can light a candle from a candle. Second, the passionate, consuming desire in our own developing societies to give topmost priority to the acquisition of knowledge, and the removal of all international barriers to this end. Unfortunately the prognosis here is not very bright.

"And as to the first point, regretfully, the opportunities for international scientific concourse are shrinking fast, with greater and greaer restrictions in the traditional countries like the U.K. [Britain] and US on the acceptance of overseas scholars, including those from developing countries. It is becoming increasingly clear that the developing world will need internationally run . . . institutions, universities of science . . . ."

To this end, Dr. Salam looks not only to the scientifically advanced nations for help. He also appearls to developing countries to recognize that "science and technology among them is their own responsibility." He adds: "Speaking as one of them, let me say this: Your men of science are a precious asset. Prize them, give them opportunities, responsibilities for scientific and technological development of their own countries. The goal must be to increase their numbers tenfold, to increase the $2 billions spent on science and technology to $20 billions. Expenditure on science will pay tenfold."

And he makes a special appeal to his "brothers in Islamic countries," sahing: "To some of you, Allah has give a bounty -- an income of the order of $60 billion. On the international norms, these countries should be spending $1 billion annually on science and technology. It is their forebears who were the torchbearers of international scientific research in the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11 th centuries. Be generous once again. Spend the billion dollars on international science, even if others do not. Create a Talent Fund -- available to Islamic, Arab, and developing countries -- so that no potential high-level talented scientist s wasted."

To start off this fund, Dr. Salam offered his $60,000 Nobel Prize money.

This challenge to make science and technology relevant to all mankind is truly global. And as Arnoldo K. Ventura, technical director of the Scientific Research Council of Jamaica, points out, it offers "a realistic alternative to the arms race . . . as scientists and technologists are being called upon to attack poverty instead of the human race."


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