Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Science to the rescue: new products and technologies

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This is part 4 of a series of blogs – if you want to start at the beginning click here.

Many development funders, particularly private foundations, state that their investment in research aims to develop new products and technologies which will benefit the poor. The Gates Foundation for examples states:

“Our Global Health Division aims to harness advances in science and technology to save lives in low-income countries. We work with partners to deliver proven tools—including vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics—as well as discover pathbreaking new solutions that are affordable and reliable.”

Development is a messy and sometimes disheartening endeavour and the idea that there could be simple technical fixes to at least some problems is highly appealing – and indeed the enthusiasm is based on some very tangible successes.

Research has generated some incredible products and technologies which have transformed the lives of millions. Some of these innovations have come from public research institutions. For example, the live attenuated polio vaccine was invented in the University of Cincinnati while the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico have been instrumental in the development of modern maize varieties which are estimated to have lifted millions of people out of poverty.

In recent years, public-private partnerships have also shown great promise in the development of new medical and agricultural products and technologies. In particular Product Development Partnerships such as the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the International Aids Vaccine Initiative have dramatically improved the new pipeline of drugs, diagnostics and vaccines for diseases of poverty.

silver bullet

A degree of humility concerning the likely impacts of products and technologies is prudent

Having said that, it is important to remember that many new inventions which were intended to improve the lives of the poor have flopped because they were not useful for the people they were designed for. For example clean cook stove technology did not had the expected dramatic effects on health when rolled out in India due to low uptake while many ICT for development schemes have not had the impact their supporters had hoped for (fabulous blog on this topic here).

Of course this tendency to look for technical fixes to problems is not limited to the development world. Professors Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University and Richard Nelson of Columbia wrote an influential 2008 Nature article outlining three rules for successful technological fixes. They conclude that:

“. . .one of the key elements of a successful technological fix is that it helps to solve the problem while allowing people to maintain the diversity of values and interests that impede other paths to effective action. Recognizing when such opportunities for rapid progress are available should be a central part of innovation policy, and should guide investment choices.”

Thus overall, the evidence on products and technology is hopeful – but it comes with a cautionary note: new products and technologies will only have impact if they are used. And thus understanding the nature of problems that poor people have and the complicated incentives that drive human behaviour are really important aspects of the research process.

OK, that’s enough information for this week. Do tune back in on Monday though for installment 5 on evidence-informed policies and programmes.

Part 5 available here.


One thought on “Science to the rescue: new products and technologies

  1. Pingback: Science to the rescue: human capital | kirstyevidence

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