Government could hone its use of science but scientists need to understand the issues.
Recent calls by the United Nations (Nature 430, 5; 200410.1038/430005a) for stronger science input to support aid policy, in particular for feeding the hungry, are welcome. In the United Kingdom, organizations such as the Department for International Development (DFID) need to improve their use of the science base. But there is also scope for the scientific community to improve its understanding of development issues surrounding agricultural policy, if scientists are to be productively engaged in fighting world hunger and poverty.
In the United Kingdom, the call for better use of science in development has been led by the Royal Society and the science research councils. In a recent News story (Nature 429, 492; 200410.1038/429492a), John Lawton, of the Natural Environment Research Council, described DFID as “complacent, rather arrogant and ill-informed” about science.
However, similar shortcomings with respect to understanding of development issues are evident in the public pronouncements of some of the country's leading scientists.
At the same parliamentary inquiry at which Lawton addressed DFID's shortcomings, John Pickett, of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, described how, on a visit to Malawi, his team was “whisked off” to view “some kind of DFID programme in which very, very small bags of seed and very, very small bags of fertilizer were being given out.... This seemed to be a totally unsustainable and non-scientific based [sic] piece of development work which you would not really expect of an organisation like DFID”.
The programme Pickett refers to is known as the Malawi Starter Pack Programme, which, in the 1998 and 1999 planting seasons, aimed to supply Malawi's 2.8 million smallholder farming households with sufficient inorganic fertilizer and hybrid maize seed to plant 0.1 hectare (the average land-holding in southern Malawi is 0.3 ha). These “very, very small” inputs were intended to provide a short-term safety net, to enable Malawi's farmers to survive the consequences of the International Monetary Fund's Structural Adjustment Programme. This had withdrawn subsidies from agricultural inputs (including fertilizer), ordered a dramatic currency devaluation and caused (through withdrawal of state services) the collapse of the agricultural credit system. As a result, most farmers were unable to afford the inputs needed to grow enough food for household consumption (see http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v6/v6i1a8.htm).
Far from being unscientific, the Starter Pack programme was based on a thorough knowledge of the constraints faced by farmers and the production dynamics of Malawian agriculture. The programme was designed by Charles Mann, an economist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and former food security adviser to Malawi's government. DFID provided much of the funding for the programme, but its implementation was a multi-donor effort.
With the secretary of state for international development, Hilary Benn, having recently confirmed that DFID will appoint a chief scientist, there are good opportunities for science to serve development needs, provided there is effective communication on both sides.