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Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Science incubator with food. EPA

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world’s big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There is always hope that scientific innovations will help solve global problems. So can scientists help solve the globe’s ultimate problem: eliminate extreme poverty? In two announcements this month, the governments of the US and UK have made a fresh commitment to try.

On 3 April, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) unveiled the Global Development Lab, with the goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030 using technology-based solutions. While not strictly a physical lab, it is an initiative that will bring together universities, the private sector, governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in order to collectively trial new technological tools to fight poverty.

This is an ambitious exercise. The funding reflects that, with USAID committing to US$1 billion per year of support. The ultimate aim is seemingly intractable, but the lab and its partners will aim to develop solutions in water, health, food security and nutrition, energy, education, and climate change, all in the space of only five years.

Not many days after USAID’s announcement, on 9 April, the UK government announced the launch of the Newton Fund, a £375m pot designed to improve the research capacities of emerging powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa, and in doing so strengthen ties with Britain.

This might seem like a lot of investment in scientific innovation for development. But it is not the first time huge commitments have been made.

What after publicly-funded science?

Previous initiatives such as the Green Revolution, and attempts to eradicate malaria, among others, represent some of the largest global public investments ever made. After World War II, there has been hope that publicly-funded science would cement peace and that technology would become the foundation of the global economy.

While the impacts of these efforts have been far-reaching, they have also come with caveats of sustainability, reach and appropriateness. The Green Revolution never really took off in Africa, attempts to eradicate the mosquito as a means to control malaria have stalled, vaccination programmes struggle to gain acceptance in certain parts of the world, and among certain populations (and not just in developing countries).

These examples do not represent miracles, technological panaceas, or broken promises. They represent the enormous complexities of the relationship between science, technology and society. New knowledge on its own cannot solve societal problems, innovation does not automatically engage with pressing need, and technologies more often than not do not reach the people who need them. We have since developed a more critical, possibly jaundiced but also more realistic view of the transformational power of science.

Universal education, better communication and international collaboration have not only created new platforms for science, they have created new platforms to engage critically with science and recognise the roots of limitations – diseases of the poor have few treatments, crop yields have stagnated, the internet has remained out of the reach of too many. There are limits to science beyond the limits of technical knowledge, and these limits are often shaped by the limits of innovation to engage with problems of development.

That is why the Global Development Lab and Newton Fund are not simply new Green Revolutions or vaccine development initiatives. They recognise the central role of innovation. The Lab aims to create a “new global marketplace of innovations”. Entrepreneurs, investors and corporate leaders are given as much emphasis as inventors, academics and research.

There is some consternation that some of the private sector partners – such as Coca-Cola, Cargill and Unilever – that will profit from poverty alleviation. Similarly, the Newton Fund will be administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), not the Department for International Development (DFID) that is experienced at handling such programmes. However, the larger aim is an urgent one and such initiatives are desperately needed.

Even then, it would be wrong to interpret the launch of the Global Development Lab and Newton Fund within a week of each other as some sort of watershed in how we conceive of the nature of innovation within science for development. Rather it is a sign of an already emerging approach.

There have been many initiatives over the past few years that have blurred the boundaries of public and private – global product development partnerships such as the International Aids Vaccine Initiative fuelled by the emergence of social entrepreneurship as an alternative to “development” (see for example the excellent The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator) and the emergence of innovation hubs in developing countries (for example iHub in Nairobi). These are reshaping the relationship between science, technology and innovation for development.

Slow and steady wins

Innovation has historically been built on the interaction between public and private sectors, blurring the dichotomies. It would be a mistake to understand them as mutually exclusive. Social entrepreneurship – where profits are ploughed back into solving social problems – should not be seen as a proxy for NGOs, private-sector science should not be seen as the successor of public-sector science, and the market should not be seen as the sole vehicle for international development.

We need to think more critically about the relationship between the public and private sector. And we also need to resist the allure of only scaling up. While the Green Revolution and drug development demonstrate the power of scaling up a solution, thinking only in terms of scale risks privileging high-tech, high-risk solutions over simpler, less exciting solutions that deliver in local contexts.

The private sector and entrepreneurs are not a like-for-like replacement for international development and local initiatives. There are pressing needs to build infrastructure, support health and education systems and support governance and civil society structures. These are necessary for science to flourish and for technology to transform.

The hope is that both the Global Development Lab and Newton Fund recognise these complexities. They are taking on a big problem where in the past success has been slow.

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