Last week in Oslo, Norway, along with participants from some 40
countries and organizations around the world, I attended an "experts
workshop" on Science, Technology and Innovation to Address Global
Challenges. The meeting was organized jointly under OECD auspices by
the Norwegian and German Ministries of Education and Research
The agenda included presentations and discussions on issues such as
priority setting, funding, capacity building, and... asleep yet?
Well, this is your wake up call.
The rubber really hit the road during the final substantive session,
which was innocuously entitled "Delivering Benefits." At that point in
the proceedings a consensus began to develop around a single, somewhat
terrifying realization: If international policy and decision-makers
can not be convinced that a radical course correction is needed, then
in the not too distant future the world may reach a tipping point
beyond which recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.
The consequences could well be catastrophic.
To understand how a group assembled by such a respectable institution
as the OECD could reach such a disturbing conclusion, some sense of
the over-arching analytical narrative is required. My interpretation
of the fundamental lines s goes something like this.
In the globalization era, the most profound challenges to human
survival -- climate change, public health, food security, and resource
scarcity, to name a few -- are rooted in science and driven by
technology. Moreover, underdevelopment and insecurity, far more than
religious extremism or political violence, represent fundamental
threats to world order. In this context, the capacity to generate,
absorb and use science and technology (S&T) could play a crucial role
in improving security and development prospects. Addressing the needs
of the poor, and bridging the digital divide could similarly become a
pre-occupation of diplomacy.
Although poverty reduction contributes to development, and development
is the flip side of security, S&T issues are largely alien to, and
almost invisible within most international policy institutions.
National governments, foreign ministries, development agencies, and
indeed most multilateral organizations are without the scientific
expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or research
and development (R&D) network access required to manage effectively.
If this is to change, and in order to examine the remedial
possibilities, politicians, opinion leaders and senior officials must
be critically aware of both the dynamic inter-relationships among
principal actors and the key questions and issues at play.
Unfortunately, their preoccupations lie almost entirely elsewhere.
The lion's share of international policy resources are at present
devoted to the military, which according to the argument outlined
above represents a colossal, and extremely costly misallocation. With
a dominant international policy focus in many industrialized countries
on counter-terrorism and the struggle against religious extremism and
political violence, the threats and challenges which most imperil the
planet remain largely unaddressed.
All told, this tale amounts to one terribly disturbing disconnect.
Because not only are the dots not joined-up.
In most cases, there are no dots.
Whatever comes out of the Oslo meeting, it clearly will not, in
itself, be enough to save the world. But if the project contributes to
a more acute more widely-shared awareness of the real threat set, then
we may all emerge at least with something in rather short supply under
the present circumstances.