How Science Could Solve Poverty

02/20/2012 12:35 EST | Updated 04/20/2012 05:12 EDT

It has been a bad year for experts. The Arab Spring and the global financial crisis shook public confidence in expert analysis. The scientific community fared little better in public opinion after the nuclear plant meltdown in Japan.

While we may have lost some faith in experts, let's not lose faith in science, which has had a profound impact. Vaccines helped defeat smallpox, new technologies connect us as never before, and innovation has lifted millions of people out of poverty in countries such as China, Brazil, and India.

Science holds much promise for continuing to improve lives, nowhere more than in the poorer countries.

I don't advocate blind faith in science. It has led us down many regrettable paths, such as the widespread use of DDT in the 1950s. More recently, unsustainable development has left us vulnerable to a changing climate, as well as food, water, and energy shortages.

I do not want to suggest that these major challenges can be solved by science alone. We also need stronger institutions and improved governance. However, this is a tremendously exciting time to be a scientist looking to alleviate poverty.

The development of drought-resistant crops could help feed the world's poor. Nanotechnology may radically reduce the cost of producing potable water. And open science -- where many scientists work simultaneously on a problem -- can dramatically accelerate scientific advances.

The power of this approach was highlighted in a recent breakthrough. Two teams of online video gamers helped identify the structure of an important enzyme found in the HIV virus. In three weeks they solved a problem that had confounded scientists for a decade.

But how do we harness science and innovation so that they ensure sustainable and equitable development rather than create new problems?

First, we need to help build local scientific capacity. Rather than importing scientific know-how, people can acquire the skills they need to solve their own problems.

For example, South Africa is facing an energy shortage, and Daphne Singo wants to help solve it.

Singo, the daughter of a domestic worker, is doing her PhD in nuclear physics. She is a graduate of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which provides rigorous mathematics training to post-graduate students in Africa. The government of Canada is contributing $20 million to support the AIMS initiative.

Second, science needs to be collaborative. Many problems flow across borders and are too complex for one country to solve.

Take the example of another Canadian-supported initiative. Jianhong Wu, a Canada Research Chair at York University, and China's Yiming Shao, the chief scientist for China's Centre for Disease Control, are currently working together to predict and control the spread of HIV and other diseases such as avian influenza. That kind of collaboration helps China, Canada and the world, through an initiative that will help protect people everywhere.

Third, science needs to be interdisciplinary and inclusive. In the most sustainable and equitable societies, social sciences hold a strong place next to the natural and applied sciences. Social sciences help us ask hard questions about the direction of scientific inquiry and the fair distribution of innovation investments, as well as identifying benefits and risks.

It is healthy to be sceptical of science's ability to solve our problems. But when it is rigorous, and when it helps build local capacity, is collaborative and interdisciplinary, science can be a powerful force for alleviating poverty. It might also restore some faith in experts.