Science for Survival
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
With deep political insight, Willy Brandt described North-South relations as “the greatest challenge to mankind for the remainder of this century” and “the two decades ahead of us ... fateful for humanity”. His enlightening report North-South: A Program for Survival was critically timed: “the 1980s could witness even greater catastrophes than the 1930s”, a somber foreboding stemming from the grave inequities dividing the rich North and the poor South.
Three decades after the publication of A Program for Survival, the South continues to be faced with problems of sorts. In the realm of science and technology, the North-South chasm presents many disquieting features: the North sitting on the gleaming wings of science rejoices on its grandiose successes, while the South provides a multiplying myriad of eyesores as its fledgling science remains precariously perched.
Should developing countries be left to lurch and languish? Should three-quarters of humanity inhabiting our planet be condemned to a perpetual state of sub-human living? Or, should the South be helped to its feet with the North abandoning its detached stance? Should not the South’s access to science and technology - its passport to modernity - be precipitated for its eventual salvation, and for the unity of the world?
Indisputably, the science of the North can be used as the great equalizer to give each country in the world the opportunity to feed its people, to house them, to allow them to enjoy life in all its wondrous aspects, and to give them the feeling of pride in intellectual achievement. “In the United States, we used to talk of the gun as the great equalizer, the method that American cowboys employed to take care of bullies. Today, I believe the greatest equalizer is science”, perceptively commented Kurt Salzinger, President of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Rescuing the South would not be entirely without gains for the North: collaboration in research in regions which are rich in the natural resources of plants, animals and minerals, and in countries which are uniquely placed in relation to incident solar energy and the geographic and magnetic equators, would be mutually beneficial. Not all areas of science, not all accomplishments, not all discoveries to be made in the future will be made in big or expensive science.
Among the broad areas for initial North-South collaboration, the following appear most attractive: biotechnology, particularly in relation to medicine; genetic improvement in agriculture; mass propagation techniques in agriculture; post-harvest food preservation; survey of natural resources; soft technologies for energy production; electronics and computer technology; health and sanitation; rural industrial development; laser development and application, e.g. in microsurgery, precision manufacturing, etc.; and optical communication.
The North is also morally obliged to erase some of the present scientific and technological imbalances which are largely its own doing. It is hard to deny that “for most of the sovereign states of the world, the length of time and the degree of intensity to which they have been subjected to European influence has much to do with their present political, economic, material and technological levels and systems of organization.” So commented J.P. Cole in his famous book Geography of World Affairs published by Penguin Books Ltd. Science in the battered colonized world was left to languish and decay. Lord Macaulay, for instance, strove to give India the best that Britain could offer for an educational system, but this did not include science and technology.
Historic compulsions too suggest the same course. In the long run the North’s indifference to science development in the South will be counterproductive for the North itself. Throughout human history, science has never flourished under restrictions, be they of religion (Mediaeval Europe), politics (Nazi Germany) or frontiers (modern USA). It has been rightly said that “the technical opportunities, though certainly helping to liberate mankind in many ways, exacerbated some of the world’s ancient troubles, and scientific achievements have scarcely been matched by political ones. In the late 1970s, it seemed possible that Western civilization might collapse before the end of the century, either from the onslaught of irrationality without or the failure of nerve within.” (Hugh Thomas, A History of the World , New York, Harper and Row Publishers Inc.) It is in the interest of the North to show greater respect for human development which needs the science of values, rather than put all its stakes in technical development, which is not total development and does not settle the major problems of politics, economics and war, but only raises such issues to a new pinnacle of desperation.
T he Marshall Plan and its successes have set a shining precedent of international assistance, an outstanding example to emulate. A total of $32 billion - 2.7% of the then GNP of the USA - transformed war-ravaged Europe, setting off a chain reaction of prosperity for the donor and the recipient. The same applies to North-South collaborative schemes: wholesome results would surely ensue but over a longer time span, given the South’s multifarious problems. The International Herald Tribune has commented in a timely way: “. . . there is much that the North could do... It could move prudently toward faster growth and speedily toward freer trade for the products that the poor produce. Above all, it could stop sermonizing and show greater tolerance for the economic institutions favored by struggling governments in the South . . . North-South relations would improve if the rich showed more understanding of the pressures faced by the poorer countries at home”. Countries today are so interdependent that “it is impossible for the two hemispheres to follow divergent trends for long”, the Tribune concludes.
As the South scientists continue their often-frustrating and seldom-rewarding scientific plod, they should not lose heart but instead seek consolation in the knowledge that the irritating problems confronting them today are not peculiar to their own setting but were once an annoying feature of Northern science at its formative phase. The flowering of science was unfailingly obstructed and stifled when the North was entrapped in poverty. The changeover from a feudal to a science-oriented society was not spontaneous, the blueprints precipitating the Industrial Revolution and the science culture were not self-generating, pre-existent, or interwoven. The going was rough, over a tortuous winding road.
Even the post-World War II `Big Science’ was not free from failings. Many mistakes were committed but camouflaged by the explosive rate of development. As late as the end of the sixties, science policy in Europe was still in its infancy and seeking its terminology and methods. Despite the plethora of research facilities and bulging R&D programs, there was considerable anxiety that should an `enlarged Europe’ (the Continent and the UK) delay “in pooling as many of its scientific findings and techniques as it can, we shall all far behind, and in ten years have receded, to the status of underdeveloped countries.”
Though hardly symptomatic of the time, scientists in the USA often fret today that many bright people who would otherwise enter the science arena, are passing it by without any real exposure to its attractions. There is also considerable resentment that economists who often offer such temporary and shaky solutions are among the President’s most favored and visible advisers while scientists who are specially qualified to develop adequate knowledge and understanding of the issues themselves, struggle to be heard!
In the prodigious struggle of the North, one which is still continuing, there are lessons for Southern scientists. Failures are a necessary prelude to success. A whole-hog commitment, an unrelenting effort, should be their prime undertaking. The emergence of Southern multinationals and their corporate interaction with the old and well-entrenched trans-nationals - trading empires and storehouses of valuable scientific know-how - also leads one to shed some pessimism about the future of Southern science.
Rescuing Southern science from its present abyss is the responsibility of the three main actors on the world scene - the North, South, and the UN. Each one has a role to play. In a world of multi-polarity and increasing complexity, such a futuristic perspective appears fanciful, though rationally opportune, if one seriously contemplates the prospects for a livable world. Brandt, for one, was bold enough to suggest that we explore the realm of the possible: “Many people in government, and elsewhere, may consider this to be the worst possible moment for radical changes. How can industrial nations preoccupied with grave problems of their own be expected to make far reaching and bold moves to intensify cooperation with the developing world? But we believe that it is precisely in this time of crisis that basic world issues must be faced and bold issues taken”. Uplifting the state of Southern science today – three decades after the publication of A Program of Survival - is certainly a basic world issue, a pressing one. Divested of science, technology transfer alone would be a formalistic exercise in abstraction and would hardly accomplish anything of lasting value. It would be like the gift of a decorative house-plant without its roots - it would look beautiful for a day or two, but would surely wither away. - email@example.com