Friday, January 07, 2005

Brain drain

The UN has a new report out on the need for more scientific input into plans to end global poverty.
Prof Juma said: "We have seen with the challenges which southeast Asia has faced in eliminating poverty and hunger that scientific and technical capabilities determine the ability to provide clean water, good healthcare, adequate infrastructure and safe food. [...]

Prof Juma's report will identify information and communications technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and new materials as "platform technologies" that will have "profound implications for long-term economic transformation" in developing countries.

"Universities also have a vital role to play in economic development, particularly in training new generations of skilled scientists and engineers. But we need to fully utilise the talents of developing country scientists for development, irrespective of where they are located. It is ironic that some developing countries are putting their scarce resources into education and training that benefits the developed world," he added.
You'll get little argument from me on the importance of science and technology in alleviating poverty, especially on things like health care and clean water. Still, the last point highlights a certain tension in the concerns expressed by this post I wrote a couple weeks ago. On the one hand, I like science and want it to do well, and as an American I want U.S. science to do well. On the other hand, U.S. dominance in science relies, in a certain way, on suppressing the scientific infrastructure of other countries - for example, by the brain drain whereby the most talented people from developing countries are sucked away into the scientific machine in the U.S. (Much as U.S. military dominance relies indirectly on the relative poverty of most other countries, especially India and China.)

The decline in U.S. dominance in science doesn't really solve the problem because the "rising powers" in science are either other developed countries (Europe and Japan) or developing countries that are developing pretty quickly (China and India). The really poor countries are still stuck without the scientific infrastructure that could help a "long-term economic transformation." And it's not necessarily enough just to have "scientific advisers" from rich countries go into poor countries to provide the new technologies, because foreigners often don't understand the local cultural context.

I'm not sure what to do about this, other than encouraging scientists to go back home to help their home country out of poverty. Maybe the forthcoming report has some ideas...


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