Strengthening the Science and Technology Capacity of Developing Countries
Self-Reliance: The Key to Sustainability
The governments of many developing countries recognize the critical importance of local institutions and specialists being able to identify, adapt, and effectively use the S&T achievements of industrialized nations and to develop their own unique technologies. According to World Bank officials, requests for S&T-related assistance from such governments are on the rise.
Better application of technologies of broad international interest can improve many aspects of social and economic development—from pest-resistant crops to less wasteful food processing; from prenatal care and child health to the prevention and treatment of diseases; from reduction of environmental contaminants to purification of water; and from more reliable electricity to more efficient and affordable communication and transportation systems. Almost every area of USAID programming—including even governance and export promotion—is intertwined with the local S&T capabilities of developing countries.
Reflecting the continuing need for S&T capacity in developing countries, a USAID policy adopted in 1983 on institution building continues to have salience 22 years later. The policy was as follows:
Key institutions in the development process are those that generate, adapt, and disseminate knowledge and technology at international, national, and local levels. Technology transfer is accomplished most effectively by those countries which have scientific establishments capable of evaluating and adapting knowledge and technologies to local conditions. The establishment of local institutions that have the capacity to tap and contribute to the world knowledge supply must therefore be a high USAID priority.1
The specific technologies that are suitable for addressing development problems vary widely from country to country. In some cases, continued use of well-established health, agriculture, and engineering technologies may be more practical than adopting newer technologies that are increasingly used in industrialized countries. An important key to successful development is the capability of a country—through its governmental and increasingly its private sector institutions—to be able to select those technologies that can be effectively used and maintained at affordable costs.
Unfortunately the importance of developing S&T capacity may not be adequately reflected in the economic, research, and education policies and programs of the countries themselves or in projects advocated by their foreign partners. Only limited attention is often paid to policies that provide incentives for government or private sector organizations to invest in suitable technologies, that support training programs for the local purveyors and users of technologies—however advanced—and that ensure that product quality standards are met. Frequently public and private sector institutions simply purchase technologies that are promoted by foreign sales representatives or accept recommendations of international partners with little local appreciation of the effectiveness and limitations of the technologies that are acquired. However, many developing country governments are now striving to have stronger indigenous technical capacities to select and, when necessary, to adapt both local and imported technologies to help ensure they will perform adequately in the physical, economic, and social environments where they will be deployed. Experienced local researchers can often provide helpful advice during the selection process.
USAID has played an important role in the establishment in Bangladesh of a system of monitoring levels of rivers that flood populated islands and low-lying coastal areas each year. These efforts, together with efforts of the government and other donors, have saved the lives of thousands of residents of flood-prone areas each year.
SOURCE: Unpublished report of the NRC Committee on Science and Technology in Foreign Assistance on field visit to Bangladesh, January 2005.
Turning to an area where millions of lives are repeatedly at stake each year, the need for local capabilities to effectively use technologies that help provide early warning of natural disasters and to support prompt and effective responses following a disaster is demonstrated all too often. USAID has a good record of supporting the deployment of modern technologies in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and other unpredictable events, but USAID has given less attention to improving capabilities of countries to prepare for and respond to such events once the international support teams have left the scene following an event. Two contrasting examples of responding to the challenge are set forth in Boxes 3-1 and 3-2.
In another critically important area, nearly all countries recognize the importance of higher education in S&T disciplines. Unfortunately, institutions to provide such education are not yet well established in most developing countries. In addition, qualified teachers with expertise in S&T are in short supply at both the secondary school and the university levels.
While satellite technologies can greatly improve current capabilities to predict the times and directions of hurricanes, the countries of Central America that are in the paths of frequent hurricanes do not have the capability to use the products of this technology effectively despite the enormous economic stakes associated with hurricanes.
SOURCE: Unpublished report of the NRC Committee on Science and Technology in Foreign Assistance on field visit to Central America, March 2005.
As to the role of local researchers in the development process, the types of investments that are appropriate vary greatly from country to country. Small, poor countries may not be able to support their own research facilities, and regional approaches might be considered. In Africa, in particular, considerable attention has been given to regional education and research centers. More populous countries may be able to develop their own capabilities more easily. Whether the goal is a national or a regional education or research center, external donors must recognize that long-term commitments are needed to establish productive institutions. Too often donors are only interested in jump starting new education or research facilities for a few years. Then, in the absence of a long-term funding commitment, embryonic research activities that are on good trajectories are left on their own; and they may quickly collapse.
For decades USAID has made major contributions to strengthening higher education in S&T and related research capabilities of many countries. For example, USAID has drawn on the capabilities of the U.S. land grant colleges to work with counterpart institutions throughout the developing world. These efforts have had great impact when sustained over 10 years or more. In particular, training of Mexican and Brazilian plant geneticists has had excellent development payoffs in terms of developing and adapting crops that can tolerate harsh environmental conditions. In recent years, however, the investment of USAID in supporting local S&T educational institutions has declined significantly, as indicated in Box 3-3.
The agency has cut back on scholarships, infrastructure, and commodities. We need to put some of those tools back in the kit.
SOURCE: USAID Administrator, May 2005
With a few exceptions, long-term commitments by USAID to support local institutions for a decade or more have been replaced by short-term projects of
five years or less. Not surprisingly, there has been a related tenfold decline in the past three decades in the number of USAID-financed graduate students from developing countries at U.S. universities who focus on problems relevant to those encountered in their home countries. An example of the negative impact of this decline in support for higher education is reflected in the report from Mali in Box 3-4.
The decision of USAID to devote all of the education resources of its mission in Mali to primary education and neglect higher education is having a devastating effect both on the viability of the local universities that are in their early stage of development and on the influx of specialists trained abroad for leadership positions within the government.
SOURCE: Unpublished report of the NRC Committee on Science and Technology in Foreign Assistance on field visit to Mali, March 2005.
Of course, well-designed, long-term S&T training at U.S. universities is but one aspect of institution building. Once trained, newly minted researchers need adequate facilities to use their training. Unless potential users are interested in their research, the researchers may end up wasting their time. Still, customized training, in the United States or other appropriate settings, can be a powerful starting point for upgrading local capabilities over the long term. Clearly development of human resources must be at the top of the priority list if nations are to have the ability to adapt, develop, and introduce technological innovations of importance to their long-term economic viability. One cannot underestimate the significance of networks that result from U.S.-based training to the promotion of U.S. interests.
Another approach that has received considerable attention in past decades has been the opportunity to link more advanced developing countries with other developing countries in a South-South transfer of technology. Perhaps the best example of such an approach that is currently supported by USAID is the linking of Israeli researchers with researchers in other Middle East countries. While politically motivated, this program has supported a large variety of scientifically productive relationships.
A particularly important type of linkage for some countries is the natural tie that emerges between scientists and engineers operating in the same disciplines. USAID has supported activities between chemical societies in different countries interested in addressing opportunities for marketing natural products (for example, in tropical areas). These relationships are often helpful both in identifying commercial opportunities and in ensuring that scientists in developing countries do not become isolated from their counterparts in the industrialized world and then lose interest in science.
Against this background of the importance of S&T capacity enhancement in almost all developing countries, USAID should reverse the decline in its support
for building S&T capacity within important development sectors in developing countries. To this end, USAID should:
1. Increase the number of USAID-sponsored participants in highly focused graduate training programs designed to develop future leaders in various S&T disciplines. For the reasons discussed above, the opportunities for USAID-supported study at U.S. universities should be increased significantly, probably on the order of two- to threefold while recognizing that the number of students will not approach the much higher levels of the 1980s. The emphasis should be on training that can contribute directly to programs in health, agriculture, environment, energy, and other areas of priority interest to developing countries and to USAID. Visa problems, temptations for brain drain, and U.S. caution concerning the spread of terrorist networks into the United States will place limits on the extent that such training can be expanded. Nevertheless, the importance of training future S&T leaders at U.S. institutions has been repeatedly demonstrated through USAID programs. Such training should be reinvigorated using well-tested sandwich programs whereby time is divided between study in the United States and field research in the home countries and other proven approaches that focus attention of researchers on persistent problems in their home countries.
Training programs in the United States at the graduate level should be supplemented with (1) graduate training programs at well-developed regional and local institutions, (2) opportunities for participation by local specialists in Web-based distance learning programs, (3) short-term visits by local specialists to the United States for conferences and short-term training courses, and (4) broader use of training partnerships with the private sector operating in the countries of interest. Such training activities should be directly linked to the areas of priority USAID interest in the home countries of the trainees. To the extent feasible, the participants in training programs should be selected from a limited number of institutions to help strengthen both individual and institutional capabilities.
The balance between long-term training in home countries and abroad must be resolved country by country and on a programmatic basis. An important consideration is, of course, the collateral benefits of training in the United States, which usually results in alumni with strong admiration for the United States as well as increased interest of U.S. professors in dealing with issues related to international development.
2. Increase financial support for applied research and outreach, including extension, at local institutions that can support host country priority programs of interest to USAID. Strengthening applied research and outreach capabilities at important facilities can provide results of near-term significance, can help ensure sustainability through local efforts of USAID’s projects, and can stimulate local
interest in research. In addition, researchers often play important roles in governmental decisions as to the importation of technologies from abroad. Chapter 1 presents many examples of past USAID successes in supporting research and outreach in agriculture and health that are worthy of emulation. Model programs that attract the attention of researchers from throughout a country are often important in addressing nationwide issues.
USAID experience in developing important research capabilities in fields beyond health and agriculture should be examined to ascertain the ingredients of success; for example, USAID has played a significant role in developing economic and manpower research units in a number of countries, particularly within government ministries. USAID also has assisted in transforming stagnant industrial research institutes supported by governments into important centers of technological innovation (e.g., institutes in India and Guatemala). In some instances, however, short-term progress was halted as USAID terminated the programs because of a lack of near-term impacts. Documenting the futility of short-term efforts is also important.
A recently initiated USAID program to support Pakistani scientists is an example of USAID support of local S&T activities that is designed to help in building capacity. The Pakistan government provides up to $3.5 million to local S&T teams annually, and USAID provides $2 million for American collaborators and administrative support. Awards are based on an open competition, with applications subjected to peer review in both Pakistan and the United States. It is too early to assess the impact of the program, but early indications are that funds will enable important Pakistani organizations and their scientists to play stronger roles in national development (see Appendix K for a list of recent awards).
The foregoing discussion of applied research and extension has considered largely government-financed activities. Since much of the innovation occurs in the private sector, governments should have other tools to stimulate innovation (e.g., tax incentives, provision of technoparks and other suitable working areas, and training of private sector employees). As to financial incentives, governments should consider matching funds to leverage private investments in technology innovation and financial support for small technology-oriented businesses that are struggling to find market niches.
3. Provide increased financial support for development of local capacity to deliver public health services. Significant augmentation of existing pools of trained health professionals is urgently needed worldwide. Schools of public health that provide training and research capabilities should become cornerstones of health infrastructures. A strong social service component is an important aspect of such capabilities. In some cases, it may be possible to upgrade existing educations centers (e.g., Uganda). In other cases, new institutions are required (e.g., India). In general, the American model may be helpful in the development
USAID proposes to partner a limited number of African institutions for public health training with U.S. counterparts to strengthen the institutional capacity of the African school to provide advanced leadership training relevant to the health needs of Africa, including epidemiology, health policy and planning, public administration, budgeting, human resource management, and field research.
SOURCE: Information provided by Association Liaison Office for University Cooperation in Development, USAID, May 2005.
of such educational centers, but the special needs and capabilities of individual countries are crucial considerations in the design of programs and supporting facilities. USAID is attempting to initiate such an approach in Africa, as indicated in Box 3-5. As populations grow, as diseases spread, and as the public’s demand for better health services increases, this effort along with comparable new efforts in India and other countries are overdue.
4. Assist important institutions in developing countries where USAID has programs in strengthening their information acquisition and processing capabilities and their electronic access to scientific collections. As developing countries slowly build their S&T infrastructures, local education and research institutions should expand their databases on topics relevant to development, both to avoid unnecessary duplication of earlier research and to provide a better environment that will attract talented students to research. In addition, the ease of acquiring scientific literature available electronically, often accessible only through advanced library systems, should be upgraded. The expansion of broadband Internet systems and the increased number of specially designed databases throughout the world could, with modest investment, provide new opportunities for developing country specialists to stay abreast of international S&T advances in critical areas. Expanding international digital library access is also an important element of this approach.
USAID should arrange for American specialists skilled in database management and in the use of international databases to have short-term assignments in many of the countries where USAID has programs to help train local database managers. This low-cost approach would generate local interest in the use of international scientific resources; this would also help counterparts design affordable approaches to effective use of these resources.
There is a related need to upgrade many types of information resources—from text books to public libraries. While the recommendation in this report
TABLE 3-1 Areas of Technology Offering Promise for Further Development in Armenia.
Information technology, and particularly software development
Semiconductors, infrared detectors, and large single crystals
Laser technology and light detection and ranging (Lidar systems)
Precision electromechanical systems
Specialty agricultural products and processing
Nutraceuticals and functional foods
Specialty chemicals and specialty materials
Commercial applications of nuclear magnetic resonance
SOURCE: National Research Council. Science and Technology in Armenia: Toward a Knowledge-Based Economy, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2004.
focuses on scientific information, it should have collateral benefits in stimulating expanded information services in other areas as well.
5. Sponsor expert assessments of S&T infrastructures in countries where USAID has major programs. Such assessments of current and potential contributions of public and private S&T resources to development should be undertaken by teams of local and international specialists, particularly when qualified and objective local scientists are available. The assessments should provide important insights as to how host governments, USAID, other donors, and international organizations can effectively strengthen the infrastructures and integrate S&T resources into the mainstream of economic and social development. Economists and social scientists can play important roles in these assessments. If there is no indication of interest in such assessments by the host government or donor agencies, however, it is probably better not to launch a project, given the likelihood that the effort will raise false expectations of follow-on activities.
The scope of an assessment will depend on the country of interest. Ukraine, for example, has an extensive infrastructure, and a comprehensive assessment within the context of a single project would be very difficult. Perhaps dividing the assessment into a number of components might be feasible although different S&T activities often complement one another and the opportunity for synergism might not receive adequate attention (e.g., the contributions to nutrition of both health care and agriculture). At the other extreme, the infrastructure of Mali is
quite limited; and as indicated during the committee’s field visit to the country, a comprehensive assessment by an expert group would seem appropriate.
Table 3-1 presents one of the findings of a USAID-sponsored assessment of the S&T capabilities of Armenia. This particular finding was directed to advanced technologies with commercial potential while other conclusions emphasized the overall policy framework for S&T and trends in the development of the technical manpower base. The effort was carried out by an American team since it would have been difficult to include local specialists who were not already committed to their own approaches to improving the nation’s S&T base.
Since the U.S. Ambassador in Yerevan requested the assessment, many organizations should have been interested in the results, and particularly USAID, the Armenian government, and the Armenian and international scientific communities. Some crosscutting observations were relevant to USAID’s program interests (e.g., the undeveloped and poorly enforced regulatory infrastructure for protecting intellectual property rights, the paucity of research at the universities, and approaches to countering the brain drain). But follow-on activities have not yet materialized.
The cost of the assessment was $165,000, a small portion of USAID’s annual program budget of $56 million for Armenia at the time.
• • •
Initial implementation of the foregoing initiatives within the framework of existing USAID programs should be possible without redirection of major budgetary resources. If the initial efforts have high impact, then each initiative could be easily expanded to begin to upgrade local S&T capacities. However, sustained investments will be possible only if host governments and the private sector are persuaded that investments in S&T can be profitable.