Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Science and development – getting beyond the hyperbole…


I have a fairly short attention span so when I attend long international development meetings, I like to indulge in a little bit of conference bingo. For the un-initiated, this involves writing down a list of your favourite development clichés, and then giving yourself a point (and a healthy dose of smugness) every time someone mentions one of them. I like to include any mention of silos or capacity building, any statement about the GDP of (insert Asian country) once having been the same as the GDP of (insert African country), a statement about (insert developing country) not being poor but just being mismanaged, and, my favourite, a statement suggesting that science and technology are critical to development.

Given that I like science and I like development, you might expect me to like statements linking the two – but the reason it annoys me, is that when you then try to follow up and ask how science is going to lead to development, people often either get quite vague or give answers which are not really based on reality. It sometimes seems that the link between science and development is some kind of mantra which is backed up mainly by quoting other important people who have put it forward. I actually DO think that science can feed into development but I suspect that does not always happen in the ways people expect. I therefore believe that it is worth unpicking a little bit the causal pathways by which science can contribute to development.

So, let’s examine a few of the ways in which science might contribute to development.

1. Investment in science leads to economic growth

This is a commonly held assumption and is often cited by politicians as a reason for investing in science. However, the evidence on whether investment in scientific research is a valuable way to stimulate moneythe economy in developing countries is weak. One justification that I have heard many times is that countries such as Korea, which invested in science and technology subsequently saw economic growth. However, it is clear that there were many factors that led to Korea’s economic growth including major policy changes related to trade and thus there is no particular reason to assume that investment in science made all (or even any of) the difference. There are some studies from richer countries which have attempted to calculate the economic payback of investment in research, but there is little from developing countries. Furthermore, there is clearly not a binary decision between investment in research or not. Investment in poor research, as unfortunately is common in countries without robust processes for selecting high quality research, is very unlikely to lead to any economic growth. My suspicion is that the link between economic growth and investing in scientific research in most developing countries is a testable hypothesis, not a proven fact but I would be grateful if you know more about this topic and you would like to point me in the direction of some good relevant research.

tech2. Investment in research provides new tools and products which will benefit the poor

It is very seductive to think that scientific research will lead to new technologies which will save the world. Indeed there are some great examples of new products which have had a significant impact on developing countries – anti-retroviral treatment, polio vaccines and scuba rice are just a few amazing inventions. However, I think a degree of caution is required given that there are lots of existing ‘solutions’ to problems that are not currently being used. For example, we know how to treat many neglected tropical diseases, we know how to purify water and we know how to build roads that resist flooding – but we also know that none of these solutions are being universally adopted. For this reason, I do believe that finding new solutions to problems is important, but I think we must not forget that an equally big challenge is making sure that the solutions we have found are actually used.

3. Research will inform policy making

This is an area in which I feel that science – and scientific approaches – can really make a difference. However, I would still add some important caveats. The first is thateipm research information will only help policy makers to make better decisions if they are in fact motivated to make good decisions in the first place! If a policy maker is only interested in improving her own lot in life, they are unlikely to be motivated to use research information to improve life for the general public. Secondly, even if policy makers are motivated to improve conditions, they need to have a certain degree of evidence literacy to understand and interpret the implications of research evidence. Therefore, I think that efforts to promote evidence-informed policy need to consider the ‘demand-side’  – both the motivations of policy makers and their abilities to understand and use research.

spillover4. Spillover effects

This is perhaps the least discussed way in which science can impact on development, but I sometimes wonder if it might be the most important. What I mean by spillover effect is the general increase in scientific thinking that you get if you invest in research. This happens because some scientists will leave to enter new professions (journalism, politics etc.) and also because when you invest in research within academic institutions, you get a more research-literate faculty who in turn provide better training in scientific thinking to the students they are teaching. My hypothesis (and given the paucity of evidence, it is just a hypothesis albeit one which I suspect is true ;-)) is that the resultant critical thinking, questioning and problem solving skills could be a key factor in developing the human capital needed to run effective institutions and a populace more able to scrutinise policy makers.

I’m actually writing this blog in preparation for a talk I am giving next week so, do please do comment, enlighten me or even (politely) disagree – hopefully your input will improve my talk and thereby reduce the number of people playing conference bingo during it!

All photos courtesy of


6 thoughts on “Science and development – getting beyond the hyperbole…

  1. I know this demand side aspect is one that gets talked about a lot now, but it’s good you keep raising it. I was at a conference in Malawi last year on ‘evidence based policy decision-making’ – much criticism of researchers for not doing enough to disseminate their findings or ensure they are used, no mention of policy makers’ interest in research or their ability to apply it.

  2. I was lucky enough to see Sir John Fulston talk about his RS report “People and the Planet” a few months ago. I got the distinct impression that sustainable development in developing countries isn’t dependent on creating high-tech research departments. The biggest barriers appeared to lie around infrastructure and what is needed is surely better roads, water supplies, telecoms/power grids, hospitals etc.

    Saying that, would it not be fair to say that all countries that have or are developing rapidly have done so through some kind of industrial revolution based upon science and engineering? It may be that policy changes make a more dramatic impact than spend on R&D for science and technology, although another important factor is the teaching and training of a skilled workforce which tends to go hand-in-hand with creating a stronger University sector.

  3. If only there were a way to measure the spillover effects! Until then, how do we make a case for development through science or research? Unfortunately the scholarly world is still fighting a daily battle with publish or perish, and researchers in developing countries dwell on matters such as how to publish their doctoral thesis, only to be informed – if at all – that the publishers they are targeting are simply predators.

    I think researchers in developing countries should have incentives to do research for the cause of development (at least part of the time) and have the will to see things through, instead of simply publishing papers and moving on.

    I think the Holmes brothers make for a good analogy here. Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft is presented as being more intelligent than Sherlock, but he has no inclination for physical effort. Sherlock is both a thinker and a doer — he brings cases to a conclusion. He does not deduce things to publish a paper on the case at hand!

  4. Pingback: Science and development - getting beyond the hyperbole | Kirsty Eveidence Blog | @The Convergence of ICT & Distributed Renewable Energy |

  5. Linking science to development is an easy trap to fall into because it is a very seductive idea. We think ‘research/science’ is good and ‘development’ is good so they must surely be related and indeed better together. What is less clear is what people mean when they say ‘ investment in science’? Are we talking about more students/PhDs’/postdocs, technology based development, health research? These things actually have more useful names – education and jobs, industralisation and public health respectively.

    The spillover effect is an interesting point but I also think that strong institutional voices for scientists and other researchers matter which is why academies of sciences (and indeed other professional bodies) have a role to play.

    Ravi makes a point which I struggle with – the idea that researchers in developing countries should be incentivised to do research for the cause of development. I am not sure why or even what that means. Is there a specific subset of research that leads to development or is it a matter of application of knowledge?

  6. Pingback: Post 2015 high-level panel report | kirstyevidence

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