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How the North can help
the South to help itself

Josť I. Vargas

President of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and Third World Network of Scientific Organizations (TWNSO)

Minister of Science and Technology in Brazil from 1992 to 1998.

Last week, Calestous Juma (see The Limits to South-South Collaboration), questioned the value of South-South cooperation in the face of new global realities, especially those related to the role of innovation in economic growth. Here Jose I. Vargas offers a counterpoint, arguing that such cooperation, especially when linked to cooperative initiatives between the North and the South's most advanced developing countries, holds the key to science-based sustainable development.

When ones hears of North-South co-operation in science and technology, the image that usually comes to mind is of a stream of information that moves primarily in one direction - from North to South. Scientists in the South, however, are increasingly calling for a 'reverse flow' of information as a core aspect of the growing number of cooperative research projects that shape the agenda of the global scientific community. These calls are worth heeding, for a number of reasons.

First, scientists in the North do not have to look far beyond their laboratories and lecture halls to realize that global scientific knowledge is far more evenly distributed than the enormous wealth that scientists and technologists have created through their efforts. Many of the North's graduate schools in the basic sciences - from elite universities to solid, state-sponsored universities - would find it difficult to maintain their current levels of scholarship and research without a steady flow of graduate students from abroad.

Second, researchers from plant geneticists to meteorologists acknowledge that many of today's global problems - including issues such as climate change, biodiversity and maintaining food supplies - cannot be solved without involving colleagues from around the world. Such involvement is needed both to understand the problems and to devise sustainable solutions.

Third, there is the cultural dimension of science. Only sport and entertainment rival science's ability to serve as a vehicle of communication capable of overcoming barriers of suspicion and distrust between both nations and individuals. Science, for example, helped keep the lines of communication open between the East and West during the Cold War, and now helps to bridge the information gap between the North and South in the post-Cold War era.

Arguments for a truly global enterprise, based on the international dimensions of scientific talent, concerns and culture, are well known. But another important aspect has received somewhat less attention: the need for Northern scientists to work closely with their counterparts in the South, particularly in the developing world's most developed countries - for example, Argentina, my own country of Brazil, China, India and South Korea - as part of a complex chain to advance problem-solving scientific research on a global scale.

It is certainly true that the scientific research which takes place in the United States and Western Europe often does not have immediate applications in most of the poorest countries in the developing world. But that is not the case among countries throughout the South. Despite differences in their geography, culture and economy, for example, Brazil and Botswana share many concerns related to science, technology and development. So do India and Ethiopia, or Indonesia and Egypt.

South-South co-operation has become one of the guiding principles of science and technology policy throughout the developing world. Such efforts could be significantly strengthened through programmes that facilitate North-South co-operation - provided that Northern scientists are responsive to the issues raised by their colleagues in the South, and scientists in the South share the knowledge they have gained with their counterparts throughout the developing world.

Let me give one example of how this approach to international scientific research might work. In 1961, Brazil created a National Space Commission to develop satellite technology. Some 30 years later, in 1993, with assistance from a private US space firm, Brazil launched its first resource-data collecting satellite from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Since then, Brazil has pursued two inter-related space initiatives: the Brazilian Space Mission (MECB) and the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellites programme (CBERS).

These initiatives, which now employ about 1000 scientists and engineers and 2000 technicians, use satellite technology to address down-to-earth concerns: changes in temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and real-time data on alterations in soil and water quality. Equally important, the information gathered from these satellites has been shared with scientists in other developing countries through some 300 data-collecting platforms on Earth in Brazil and neighbouring countries. Brazil has also offered the use of these satellites and data-collecting platforms to African nations through Unesco.

Brazil's evolving space programme offers a prime example of how North-South co-operation can be used to foster South-South co-operation. The effort began with the training of young Brazilian scientists and technicians largely in US universities and research laboratories. The programme's initial steps took place with the direct help of private firms and public institutions in the West: Brazil's first satellite was launched from the United States with a US rocket.

But the knowledge and know-how that Brazilian space scientists and technologists have acquired is now being put to use to help nations throughout the developing world examine critical environmental problems. At the same time, the initiative has raised Brazil's overall scientific skills and facilities. Today, a co-operative partnership with China has set the stage for even more rapid advances in satellite earth observing, data collection and communication in the future. All of this carries the promise of allowing researchers in the South to become true partners on projects devoted to global scientific issues.

Such involvement could prove instrumental in 'southernizing' the North's scientific agenda. Research efforts could, as a result, be tied more closely to critical global issues as defined in part by input from scientists in the developing world. Ultimately, the entire global scientific community - both in the North and the South - would reap benefits likely to accrue from using scientific data and knowledge to solve real problems faced by real people, especially the two-thirds of the world's population living in the developing world.

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