Why Science Matters for Development


My attention was recently caught by the website of a conference entitled ‘Science Against Poverty‘. It was held in Segovia, Spain, in 2010 with the aim “to convey a clear message to society on the contribution of science and innovation to the fight against poverty and exclusion.”

If you’re not a scientist, you may well wonder how science, and in particular fields such as physics, can contribute to poverty exclusion. (There are, in fact, entire conferences dedicated to this topic – see for instance the 2012 conference ‘Physics for Development‘). The fight against poverty is one in which emotions run high, everyone has their own opinion as to the best course of action, and it is impossible to detach oneself from the ‘human’ factor. As such, it may appear that this is no place for abstract science, and that diplomacy and empathy would be preferred over scientific objectivity.

And indeed this is partly true. To follow a rigid scientific method, ignoring the fact that the world and the people in it are not, and do not behave like, a laboratory experiment, would lead to disaster in one form or another. The key to making progress on eradicating poverty is to combine political and social research with science, with cooperation and communication from all sides.

Last week I wrote about the use of scientific experimental methods in social policy, describing how scientific methods can be useful even in non-scientific fields. As to the direct applications of science itself within the field of development, a project described by Spanish associate professor Francisco Javier Simó Reigadas during the Science Against Poverty conference, entitled ‘Improving Health Conditions in Rural Areas Through Appropriate ICTs‘ (Information and Communication Technologies), is one example. The project tackled the problem that a lot of rural health facilities in Latin American countries are unreliable, often being under-staffed, lacking in vital equipment, and located several hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest hospital. These facilities are therefore of little use in the event of a serious medical emergency. Simó’s collaboration, made up of several universities together with Ingenieros Sin Fronteras (Engineers Without Borders), worked alongside local groups to create a network connecting all the rural health facilities along the 500 kilometer-long river Napo with the city of Iquitos. All facilities now have a telephone and internet connection, thanks to a special low-cost, long-range broadband wireless technology developed by the collaboration. Simó takes care to emphasize the need to develop a solution for the specific problem in these types of situation, which may depend on the location, climate, power supplies etc., so that only appropriate technologies are implemented. This includes the need for the solution to be sustainable, meaning that the technology can be maintained by the users themselves without the need to rely on external finance and support.

Further examples of applying science to development were recently reported in The Guardian newspaper’s ‘Poverty Matters Blog.’ They include a portable, solar-powered lamp-post for villages in rural Mali where most of the population have no access to electricity. It was designed by Italian architect Matteo Ferroni who made an effort to ensure that the device could be manufactured by the villagers themselves, using parts that can be found locally and using their own expertise. Not only does the light source provide benefits such as enabling the villagers to carry on working during the night-time, but it can also be a source of income as the lamp-post can be rented out to other communities. Also featured in The Guardian was the ‘HydroPack‘, invented by Hydration Technology Innovations. This is a small pouch which can be placed in any water source – even a dirty river or a swimming pool – and after several hours is full of water which is safe to drink. The HydroPack works by making use of ‘forward osmosis,’ the same process used by plants to extract water through their roots. In essence, only water molecules can pass through the pouch membrane but not contaminants. Thousands of these packs have been distributed, and used effectively, following the aftermath of several natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

If you’re interested in getting involved, an upcoming conference called ‘Grand Challenges and Integrated Innovations: Science for Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development‘ is to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this coming February. This will bring together scientists and development agencies to discuss issues such as global food security and coping with climate change. Another initiative bringing together these two groups is the Science for Humanity network, open to everyone. ‘Solution seekers’ in the network pose a problem that they have, for example, the need for a sustainable water purification system in rural Thailand, and scientists and engineers from all over the world can contribute their ideas and perform the necessary research.

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the best-known applications of science within development: genetically modified (GM) crops. This has always been, and still remains, a highly controversial topic. Whatever your opinion, I think that it serves as a good example of several important points regarding the application of science to development (see my previous post on GM crops for more details of each of the following): firstly, GM technology is an example of the theoretical potential of science to solve global problems (in this case, the development of more nutritious, higher-yielding, and weather-resistant crops). Secondly, it illustrates how the practical difficulties of science can sometimes hinder it from living up to its theoretical potential. Thirdly, the question of whether the solution is sustainable in the long-term must include the consideration of all possible direct and indirect side-effects, and methods of dealing with them. And finally, there is the need for open and honest communication between scientists and the public, which includes accurate media coverage, in order that the public and recipients of the technology understand and can therefore make an informed decision about it.

From the perspective of the people currently receiving the benefits of the above-mentioned innovations, the necessity of science for development means that developing countries are themselves realizing the importance of implementing their own science policies, rather than relying on foreign scientists. This was eloquently expressed by the former Rwandan Minister of Science and Technology, Romain Murenzi, a former physics professor who is currently Executive Director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS). As he said, “When the United Nations Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000, it was clear that most could not be achieved without science. Eradicating extreme poverty, improving access to water, securing the food supply; you need science and technology for all those. As a result, the realization that science matters for economic growth has taken hold in developing countries.”


How important do you think science is for development? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

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For your reference:

Ford, T December 28th 2012, The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog, Solar-powered lamp-post provides ray of light for Mali. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/dec/28/solar-powered-lamp-post-mali>

McClanahan, P June 15th 2012, The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog, Innovative aid, or how to get drinking water from a polluted stream. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/jun/15/innovative-aid-drinking-water-polluted-stream?INTCMP=SRCH>

Nordling, L February 18th 2011, Nature News: Q&A, Transforming science strategy in the developing world. <http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110218/full/news.2011.108.html?s=news_rss>

Simó Reigadas, FJ 2010, talk at ‘Science Against Poverty’, Improving Health Conditions in Rural Areas Through Appropriate ICTs<http://www.scienceagainstpoverty.com/Resources/documentos/Programa/ppt/d1/Javier_Simo_ppt.pdf>




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  2. Thanks Tracey Li for your article and Iulia for sending me the link 🙂

    Tracey, I agree with you in that some significant contributions may be achieved with little resources, but in general terms science is not cheap and innovation is pretty expensive. There are many potential contributions from science against poverty that are hibernated due to the lack of resources. Moreover, the most significant possible contribution against poverty would be to reduce wealth. The problem in our world is not poverty, is unfairness in the distribution of wealth, which is not a scientific affair, it is just politics.

    The day our societies will take seriously the concept of fairness then many things will change, and one of them would be increasing dramatically the amount of money dedicated to science orientated to alleviate the problems of the poor. For the moment, there are many problems that are specific to poor comunities, few scientists working on those problems and very little money for those scientists to work. Then, there is little interest in the industry to innovate based on those scarce results because the benefit is not ensured. Hence, “science against poverty” -or better, science against exclusion- exists but will not have real impact without radical political changes at all levels. Without serious political commitment we should not expect miracles from science.

    May be one day…

    • Thanks for your very insightful comments, Javier. It’s great to get an opinion from someone who works in the field and knows the difficulties involved.
      I agree entirely that science cannot be a magic solution and that ultimately, the task of redistributing resources fairly comes down to politicians. But in that case I do think (perhaps naively) that there is something to be said for trying to promote science for non-profit purposes – not just to politicians, but also to the general public, and to the scientists and future scientists who have the potential to solve some of these problems, and apply for (the limited) funding to do so, but may simply not be aware that these problems exist. Yes, the impact of science may be relatively small without any real political commitment, but a small step is better than nothing. And, as you say, if the day finally arrives when politics is no longer the major hurdle, then at least we will have some solutions ready at hand… In the mean time, keep up with your good work :).

    • This article acheevid exactly what I wanted it to achieve.

  3. Thanks Ioulia. That is indeed an example of scientific innovation at its best, showing how a relatively simple concept can have a huge impact. Also what’s great is that it was designed by two students, proving that you don’t need lots of money to develop a product like this – if you have a good idea and work at it, anyone can make a difference.

  4. Excellent post Tracey. I was recently in a rural Laos village and we got to try out ground-breaking solar powered lights called LuminAID (www.luminaidlab.com) that were designed by two female architecture students for use in post-disaster settings like after the Haiti earthquake. The lights comes in the form of an inflatable bag to diffuse the light far and wide and to be easily folded into a tiny, non-cumbersome shape. It was a revelation and another example of how science has so much to offer development.


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