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Growing stronger

Science in developing countries can withstand the current economic climate.

With the news dominated by failing banks and falling stock markets, it is easy to forget that some indices are moving upwards — such as those that record the strength of science, technology and innovation in developing nations. Despite the turmoil, this is likely to continue.

Snapshots of this trend are captured this week in A World of Science in the Developing World, a publication by TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next month (copies are distributed with this issue to subscribers, and are freely available at http://www.nature.com/twas). In the past 25 years, it is not just the larger countries such as Brazil, China, India and Mexico where the volume and the quality of scientific research have been transformed. Smaller countries such as Chile, Malaysia, Rwanda and Vietnam all regard investing in new knowledge, technology and higher education as national priorities.

The reasons are not hard to spot: most countries of the developed world invest 2% or more of their national incomes on research and development (R&D). At the same time, they enjoy some of the highest standards of living in the world. The link between R&D spending and national wealth is subject to much debate among social scientists (see, for example, D. Edgerton Nature 455, 1030–1031; 2008). But many funders and science policy-makers see the relationship in more straightforward terms: more science eventually provides valuable social returns, including greater wealth, education and a skilled workforce.

Even the oil-producing states of the Middle East — which have enjoyed good living standards without spending on science and technology — are coming round to this view. The largest-ever university-building programme in the region's history is now under way, financed for the most part by the extra income from high oil prices.

As the price of oil (and other commodities) drops along with confidence in the markets, the strategy of investing more in science is going to be tested to the hilt. The larger developing countries should be able to weather the storm — in part because the state is a relatively larger player in research, compared with more developed countries. If private-sector R&D begins to decline, it should still be possible for the state to maintain investment at — or near — current levels.

Smaller (and poorer) countries will have a harder time. Many are already borrowing from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and their priority will be to increase spending on welfare programmes. But those that want to stay on the present path have more grounds for hope than was the case in past economic crises.

In the 1980s, for example, countries that borrowed from the IMF and from the World Bank were told to cut back on government spending. Science and higher education were two of the biggest casualties, and in a few countries the effects can still be seen. In 2008, the mood couldn't be more different. In their response to the financial crisis, many developed world governments are talking not of cutting back, but of rebuilding and strengthening public institutions. In addition, there is a consensus that the world's financial architecture needs reforming too. Given such an environment, it will be difficult to justify asking poorer countries to cut back on their knowledge infrastructure when richer countries will be doing the opposite.

There is no doubt that the next few years will be difficult, but for the countries of the developing world, the answer to their present problems is not to undo the gains of the past quarter-century.

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Growing stronger. Nature 455, 1149–1150 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/4551149b

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