February 10, 2003 | THE CANADIAN WRITER Marshall McLuhan suggested that modern communications technologies have united people in ways that were previously inconceivable. News — of an earthquake in South America or a scientific breakthrough in Europe — that once took years to travel across continents is now known almost instantaneously around the world.
But as science and technology have brought together rich and poor across the globe, they also have ways to keep them firmly apart. The gap between the "knowledge rich" and the "knowledge poor" continues to grow. More than 95 percent of the world's research is performed in developed nations. Similarly, 90 percent of the world's expenditure on medical research is spent on diseases that are of most concern to only 10 percent of the world's population.
Modern technology certainly holds part of the solution to this knowledge gap. Developing countries need access to scientific and technical information as much as developed countries, and communications technology — especially electronic publishing and the Internet — can dramatically reduce the cost of that access compared to traditional printed information.
Remember the saying "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life"? The same applies both in science and in science communication. Providing access to information is only half the battle. Equally important is the need, first, to equip developing countries with the ability to use that information and, second, to enable them to communicate it effectively.
|Providing developing countries with access to information is only half the battle. Equally important is the ability to use that information.
Meeting the first of these needs means building indigenous scientific infrastructures, from school science curricula to university research laboratories. It also means building a capacity within the developing world to make informed judgements on the many science-related issues that face modern decision makers at all levels in the community.
Meeting the second requires a range of activities intended to ensure that information about science can be communicated in an authoritative and responsible way. This is one of the goals of the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net), an organization set up in 2001 with support from the scientific journals Science and Nature, as well as the Third World Academy of Sciences.
At the core of SciDev.Net's activities is a Web site (www.scidev.net) that aims to help bridge the information gap between science-rich and science-poor countries. This is achieved partly through news reports and commentaries on scientific and technological developments — progress toward a malaria vaccine, for example — and partly by providing free access to relevant research in the two journals.
Communication about science, however, particularly as far as developing countries are concerned, cannot be just a "top-down" process. Information about the way that modern science and technology can help meet the needs of such countries must be complemented by reliable information about the nature of those needs — as well as an awareness of the obstacles that prevent those needs from being met.
One way to address this is to develop the internal channels of communication about science and technology within such countries. This means helping those with professional responsibilities for such tasks develop their skills. Recent experiences from developed countries offer useful lessons.
South Africa and Brazil, for example, are both heavily engaged in projects that range from the opening of local science museums to the introduction of courses on science communication in their universities. India has accepted the need for effective science communication to develop what is referred to as a "scientific temper" in its population. China has only recently committed itself to such a task but is now doing it with unprecedented enthusiasm, aware that this is a prerequisite to becoming a modern economic power.
Pressures are also growing for more equitable access to scientific information, particularly in the new era of electronic publishing of scientific journals. Many scientists in these countries, for example, are enthusiastic supporters of the Public Library of Science, which recently announced plans for free electronic journals in biology and medicine (see First Base, page 6).
Separately, the World Health Organization (WHO) is coordinating a program under which a number of commercial science publishers have agreed to provide access at nominal costs for researchers working in countries where the average annual income is less than $1,000 (visit www.healthinternetwork.net). WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland hails this program as "perhaps the biggest step ever taken toward reducing the health information gap between rich and poor countries."
Many problems remain. Although the use of computers and Internet access is spreading, many researchers and journalists remain unplugged; even where they have access, low-bandwidth and outdated telephone lines severely restrict what they can achieve. Other barriers are cultural. In many countries in Africa, science is not embedded in either the educational or the political system. Consequently, those who promote its value and the need for better public education continue to be seen — and treated — as outsiders.
|Further information...about SciDev.Net, including details of how to receive weekly e-mail updates, can be found at www.scidev.net
Substantial efforts are required to reverse these trends. SciDev.Net is building regional networks of individuals and organizations committed to improved science communication; one such network was launched in Africa last October, and another will be launched in Latin America in May. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) made improved science communication one of its top priorities at the World Conference on Science in 1999. And aid agencies such as Canada's International Development Research Centre are moving in the same direction.
There is a long way to go, but at least the way forward is becoming clearer.
David Dickson is founding director of the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) in London. He previously served as news editor at Nature and European correspondent at Science. He can be reached at email@example.com.