Filling in the "big picture"
DEVELOPMENT, environment and science could be said to be the troika driving modern progress. But while the United Nations has been offering the "big picture" on the first two through its annual world reports, science and technology (S&T) has been conspicuous by its absence.
Now, with the recent release of the first ever World Science Report by UNESCO, one can have a more complete world-view. The report, slated to be a biennial affair, could also be seen as an inexpensive reincarnation of Impact, UNESCO's monthly journal on global S&T that died about three years ago for lack of funds.
But, unlike the much popular Impact, this one reads like a lot of platitude: one doesn't, for instance, need to be reminded of the hegemony of the industrialised world in the field of S&T or of the brain drain from developing countries.
Tuned to the market The report, however, makes one startling revelation. The newly industrialised countries (NICs) of Asia, including Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, have become role models - not only for developing countries but also for developed nations like Australia and New Zealand - in the innovative use of S&T to achieve economic prosperity. The key to the success of the NIC model lies in linking S&T policies to factors like international market demand, foreign technology and foreign investment.
Unlike India and China, the NICs did not blindly promote indigenous S&T, believing it would automatically lead to economic growth. And the pay-offs of this wisdom were fantastic. For instance, within a single generation from 1962 to 1988, Korea's GNP increased from $2.3 billion to an astounding $160 billion.
The report points out that the NICs, despite their much smaller GNP, have overtaken both Australia and New Zealand in terms of their share of patents in Europe and the US - a useful index of a country's technological effort. But, like Japan, they publish very little of what they discover, showing just how much their S&T is industry led and kept secret. In Korea, for example, the government's share in R&D has dropped from 44 per cent in 1981 to just 16 per cent today.
The state of S&T in most of the regions of the world makes boring reading. Besides, a couple of avoidable errors have crept in: C V Raman has become Vantaka Raman and China has been lauded for developing indigenous satellites where its satellite-launching capability should have received the accolade.
Skimming over problems The section on India and South Asia is especially disappointing. The style and substance, or the lack of it, immediately reminds one of the tedious annual reports churned out by the department of science and technology. Unreadable and packed with unexamined data, the section conveniently glosses over the real problems plaguing Indian science - ill-funded and over-staffed universities and laboratories, very little private-funded R&D and a demoralised work force, to name a few. If not assess critically, the authors could have at least highlighted a few of our positive achievements such as in the fields of space technology and-computer software.
The section on Russia and eastern Europe makes up a little for the insipidity of the rest. We learn, for instance, that Russia could lose 75 per cent of its scientists through retirement, emigration and to lucrative commercial ventures where quick profits can be made, according to Sergei Kapitza, Russia's most well- known science writer.
There is a strong drive to decommunise science across Russia's eastern border by freeing once taboo subjects like genetics from the clutches of ideology. But some feel that decommunisation is being carried too far. In Slovakia and Bulgaria; former communist party members of various academies can now be banned from holding senior posts for five years, regardless of their research record.
Probably the most readable part of the report is an exciting account of the cutting-edge of global research in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. The one on mathematics, written by Ian Stewart, one of the most imaginative and gifted expositors of mathematical ideas, is especially recommended.