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The Transformation of Research in the South

Rigas Arvanitis
David O’Brien


Jean Lebel e Jean-Paul Moatti

Testo integrale

1This book is a collection of the work presented during a symposium organized by our two institutions, IDRC and IRD. Our collaboration reflects the proximity of our approaches to the issues and actions we address through research and support for research, in particular in tropical regions and the Mediterranean area. Our organizations have repeatedly found themselves in the same “developing countries” — as we once called them — accompanying emerging scientific researchers and supporting the higher education and research systems of these countries. Both of our institutions have seen first hand the transformation of the research systems in the “Southern countries,” which was the subject of this symposium.

2We have experienced a profound change in the notion of “research for development” (RfD). In fact, following independence, when the first national science institutions were being forged, RfD referred to forms of technical assistance and programs financed mainly by rich countries in poor countries. The urgency of development, the imperative of growth in agriculture and industry, and the establishment of health care systems guided research priorities. In other words, research in “developing” countries in the South was seen as a tool for socio-economic development. By contrast, strengthening the scientific potential — as pursued in the post-war period in Europe or the United States — was less apparent : “basic” research seemed to be a luxury, something that “developing” countries only had access to in exceptional cases.

3Over time, providing support to public bodies and research universities, i.e., strengthening the system of scientific capacity, became a new mission of RfD. The hope was that the “assisted” countries would build their own research capacity— in this domain and in others — as a way of catching up with rich countries. International organizations, development cooperation agencies, and specialized agencies that fund research for development have all put into practice their own interpretation of capacity building with human resource development playing a central role. Work was necessary to help train researchers, teachers, government officials, and students. A “critical mass” (term derived from nuclear physics) had to be reached to fight the phenomenon of “brain drain” from the South to the North, which was a major obstacle to these countries’ scientific progress starting in the early 1960s, and to make choices whose legitimacy was still a subject of political debate and dissent. It had to be accepted that policies conceived as development-friendly often concerned political and geo-strategic issues, which also reflected the interests of the Northern countries.

4Debt crises in Latin America, Africa and Asia, structural adjustment programs and global health crises, such as AIDS, all marked the end of this somewhat paternalistic and irenic perspective that permeated development aid programs, including in the field of research. These crises coincided with the end of the Cold War polarization between the Western and Soviet blocs, as well as the breakdown of the core-periphery model. New emerging countries and therefore new forms of hegemony appeared in this multi-polar context. The organization and conduct of research underwent a deep and rapid transformation in reaction and in response to this new geopolitical context. It was also at this moment that research began to demonstrate the necessity of global action to ensure sustainable development.

5These profound changes, the withdrawal of the State, and the scarcity of national funding for research in most Southern countries had revealed, more than ever, that research could not be viewed as a turnkey technology. No technical transfer, no economic and technical assistance, no form of externally-imposed capacity building, even with the best of intentions, could satisfy the need for knowledge required nationally to produce the technological, social, cultural and institutional innovations to promote sustainable development.

6Several years after the debt crisis, UNESCO led an ambitious study to assess the state of research systems in a number of low and middle-income countries. One of the most surprising conclusions of this considerable work is that the strength of national research systems in the South is determined by political choice more than it is by absolute numbers of teachers and researchers or available research funding : states, regardless of their economic level of development, can create a supportive environment for research. Such choices are shaped by a social pact between the academic elites and the political system.

7The Southern countries that have made the choice to significantly support scientific research still struggle to find the right internal organization, one that suits the country, and externally, find the best ways to combine the need for funding and international scientific collaboration into balanced partnerships. For the Northern countries too, international collaboration has changed. Increasingly, for researchers it is a question of associating themselves closely with the scientific communities of their partner countries, not so much through philanthropy but through research addressing shared global challenges – as all of our research topics are now global, research collaboration contributes to the definition of international relations. To collaborate effectively, researchers have to overcome different forms of inequalities that persist between countries,. This involves co-building programs in partnership, participating in co-financing, and establishing shared objectives and fair partnerships. Thus, the transformation of research policies is very profound in this complex global context, where private funding is becoming increasingly important, where requests for the direct social participation of populations and communities in research work are becoming more and more pressing and tangible, and where the value of science must be reaffirmed by its social roots. These issues were at the centre of the debates during the symposium organized in 2016 in the offices of the OECD. We welcomed the opportunity for numerous partners from different institutional settings to share experiences from all continents. The themes of the symposium indicate the extent of ongoing debates on new research and innovation policies, the organization and funding of research and the role of national agencies and various actors in the research world ; on the need to strengthen university research ; on how to ensure broader participation in research and meet the requirements of open science, as well as changes in international scientific collaboration. The symposium also reopened the debate on measuring the impact of research, a debate launched in the early 90s that our organizations continue to follow closely.

8These issues are at the heart of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 and targeted for implementation by 2030 as a reference framework for multilateral action. They are essential for a critical, but also directly useful, contribution, from science to the SDGs. More specifically, for our two organizations, they are at the heart of the goals defined in IDRC’s 2015–2020 Strategic Plan and IRD’s 2016–2030 Strategic Orientation Plan. After reading this important book, we are convinced that our partners will be happy, as we are, to share these debates with a broader audience and to continue these reflections on a global scale.

© IRD Éditions, 2019

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