Cervera Bravo, Jaime
Universities as knowledge generators in the fight against poverty.
In: "Conferencia "Ciencia contra la pobreza"", 8 y 9 abril 2010, La Granja de san Ildefonso.
There is a wide consensus about the success brought to occidental societies by investments in research, development and innovation (R&D&I). This success is a product of the scientific system in which universities play a crucial role.
Moreover, there is also great criticism about failures of disbursements of Official Development Assistance, that have not succeeded in the past to induce a sustainable growth.
In the first case, the success has been achieved by uniting the individual curiosity and creativity of researchers with incentives designed to direct their activity towards global trends of development of societies and their markets. The trend is therefore driven by the incentives.
In the second case, in spite of important investments, the gap between developed and most underdeveloped countries is widening faster. In the last decades we have learned that development must be committed to the systems approach:
infrastructures are needed but are not enough, social engagement in democracy and civil freedoms is crucial, but not enough, women involvement and empowerment are important elements, and so on. The development does not come automatically.
We’ve learnt that one key component of development resides in human capacities. The capacity of a society to close the technical gap, to catch the knowledge that is needed to incorporate global technical and scientific advances
to its growth needs is mediated by human capacities of this society, so that an insufficient level in such capacities makes it impossible to reduce the gap.
Thus the creation of a critic mass of scientific and technical skills is one of the components of the mix that is needed for development in poor countries.
But actual problems of poor countries are mostly unknown, or forgotten, from the technology development frontier, and the incentives to researchers, (the search for “excellence” in developed, and also in underdeveloped countries)
are driven by advances in fields relevant for advanced countries, but not useful for poor countries: this pushes researchers from poor countries to involve in knowledge not well related to their countries main problems. The 10/90 gap
identified in health research by the Global Forum for Health Research is a well known indicator of this fact. In sixties, Duddley Seers demonstrated in his well
known paper “The limitations of the special case”, that economical theories, built studying developed economies, were no suitable to underdeveloped countries,
as systems underlying both kinds of societies were not similar, and thus, systemic comportment of economical tools or recipes learnt in developed countries
could not be directly replicated in poor countries. But this conclusion must be generalized to all knowledge areas and thus, the need to put into the research targets the conditions and needs of poor gets clear. One economist claimed that the fact that at the end of the day all population of New York had eaten was a major demonstration of the good behaviour of capitalist formal economy. We can
reply that the fact that at the end of the day most of population of Nairobi’s Kibera district have survived shows also that there is an important informal economy
behind that we don’t know at all, so we aren’t enough skilled to incentivate its improvement.
So if we wish to reach a fast extension to poor countries of the success that science and technology have got in developed countries, we have to put poverty and
informal social systems under the science focus and create incentives to shift part of the scientific attention -in all scientific areas- to relevant and unsolved problems
that actual poor societies face.
In this shift of attention, universities can play a major role.