Giving Flesh to the Science and Innovation We Need to See

Science, technology and innovation have been integral in successful development and poverty-reduction efforts, whether in Europe, Latin America, Asia or Africa. But time and time again, the real lessons of how this contribution actually worked — the genuine pathways of development change — have been lost or ignored. Whether the SDGs are a genuine opportunity for change in this regard — or will be revealed as the latest in a long series of development mirages — will depend on how well the international-development community heeds these lessons.

The history of science and technology for development is one of misguided attempts to cut-and-paste new ideas into contexts with little attention to how well they fit in them. The language and principles of science and innovation policies illustrate all too clearly the established way of thinking: enhancing technology “transfer,” developing better dissemination strategies, strengthening “absorption capacity,” and so on. Such attempts limit the potential impact of science and innovation, and seldom lead to any kind of sustainable change. They also ignore the politics of development innovation: questions of who gains, and who loses, and how these differences will be navigated dissolve away in the friction-free technocratic vision of development.

If that wasn’t enough, these conventions have influenced who gets to lead science and innovation efforts in development, and how they do it. In the rush toward exporting high-tech inventions, there has not been nearly enough emphasis on actors in developing countries: on local communities, civil society, national private sectors, government bodies, universities and research institutes. Almost 70 years after President Truman’s inaugural speech announced that we now had all the technology and knowledge needed to eradicate poverty, and ushered in the era of development, the overriding mentality is still that developing countries are vessels to be filled with knowledge and ideas.

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