Welcome to the Development Studies Association annual conference and STEPS Symposium. We’re live here at the Sussex University campus in Brighton, UK, to join in the debate of this year’s theme ‘connecting science, society and development’. Here’s what happened at the first plenary session. (Photo: Melissa Leach addresses the DSA).

Sam Jackson, president of the DSA, Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies and Alasdair Smith, chair of IDS, are opening proceedings with a welcome address.

Haddad talks on the subject of this year’s theme and asks if science and technology works for the poor relentlessly enough. Are there enough unions between development studies and science and technology studies? Probably not, and the DSA has been brave in trying to further interdisciplinary studies with this year’s theme. “If there is such as thing as an interdisciplinary nut, I can’t think of a more important one to crack than this one,” said Haddad. “ And we who care about advancing humanity have to be ready to meet those demands, to make science and technology work ever more consciously and relentlessly for the poor.”

Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, gives a quick welcome to the DSA delegates and says a few words about STEPS and how the Centre is trying to do exactly what Lawrence was just talking about – bringing science and development studies together and addressing the power relations between poorer people and technology.

And straight to the first main session of the week, a fascinating pairing of perspectives from Kenya and the UK: Prof. Judi Wakhungu, executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) and chair of the STEPS Centre Advisory Board and Gordon Conway, chief scientific advisor to the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and Professor of international development at Imperial College.

Conway will talk on making the connections between science, society and development, he says. He begins with economic growth and its connection to how people move in and out of poverty. Moving in to poverty is by and large about health-related expenses, he said and moving out of poverty is to do with links to economic growth. “Economic and social policies are critical, but so are science and innovation,” said Conway.

But what is innovation? The new rices for Africa (crosses between African and Asian rice) are “a remarkable piece of technology”, as is an innovation in Africa for disposing of sanitary towels in girls’ toilets. The simple innovation helps keep girls at school, and as a result girls outnumber boys in the higher classes in the schools that have this innovation, said Conway. So we need to think of a broad definition of innovation.

Conway goes on to talk about his vision for global science and technology systems for the 21st century and how national innovation systems can get involved. The new emerging economic powers – Russia, South Korea etc – have an important role to play because they have a lot of science and technology that is applicable to developing countries, he says. These powers may build their own innovation systems rather than get on board the existing ones.

DFID, in the next few years, will help countries build their infrastructure so that they can take advantage of innovation. And we must not forget that the poor are innovators themselves (which is what STEPS wants to focus on). The other thing we cannot forget going forward is climate change, and how much it will effect science and technology. The effect of climate change on growing maize in southern and eastern Africa is one of Conway’s examples (and one of the STEPS Centre’s first projects in partnership with Prof. Wakhungu’s ACTS). So part of the equation is how to build resilience and how we think about resilience, stresses and shocks.

But livelihoods is the key to the future. Most poor people have multiple sources of income and that’s a good basis for the future, Conway concludes.

Prof. Judi Wakhungu steps up to take the floor now and gives us a short introduction to her inter-governmental institution, ACTS, which conducts science and technology policy analysis and research. The four areas ACTS works in are agriculture and food security; biodiversity and environmental governance; energy and water security; and science and technology literacy.

Giving ACTS’ research in Sudan an example of how ACTS works, Prof. Wakhungu said the organisation looked at the situation in Sudan not as a religious or ethnic issue but from the ecology perspective of oil and water. “And that gave us a diff insight in to the situation in Sudan,” said Prof. Wakhungu.

A large part of ACTS work is on capacity building through its new Science and Technology Institute (STI) – which opened in 2005. By formalising eight of the courses already offered by ACTS the STI trains executives to advise governmental cabinets, ministers, high level panels and task forces on issues such as biotechnology, bio-safety and innovation systems. “By doing this we hope to be better placed to influence change and compliment other strategies adopted in other African countries,” said Prof. Wakhungu. Over 200 participants from Egypt, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Japan and the UK are among those who have completed the courses on offer. Obviously, and rightly so, Prof. Wakhungu is proud of ACTS’ achivements.

Sam Jackson, chairing the session, kicks off the question and answer session by asking what is different now? Prof. Wakhungu replies that it is institutions that are different: “Institutions are extremely critical and we understand that in sub-Saharan Africa. We realise that we not only have to change how we think, but the institutions have to change as well. Under this admin in Nairobi, in four years, the culture of the civil service has changed and become more professional because they have become empowered to know that they are the people that have to change the institutions. With the right institutions we can tackle some of these very difficult problems.”

“What are the big three technologies that excite and frighten you”, asks one delegate.

Conway: Mobile phones, is his reply to the first part of the question. Nanotech has enormous potential. We will soon have non pain to coat a toilet with that kills bacteria. There will be a lot of ne materials that get picked up in developing countries really fat. What worries Conway? “It is going to be very difficult to achieve carbon neutral goals,” he says and also the loss of forestry worries him deeply.

Prof. Wakhungu: “There are so many opportunities in terms of ICTs, particularly in wireless communications that transform peoples’ lives, there is a lot of scope for that. I am concerned about the challenges of climate chg and that in Africa we are extremely vulnerable to climate change. I’m also concerned about biodiversity loss. In Africa you see biodiversity loss on a yearly basis.”

“Don’t we need a whole new approach to development and doesn’t science and technology give us that approach?” asks another delegate, possibly rhetorically.

Prof. Wakhungu: “Yes, we do need new ways of thinking.. and we need to restructure our institutions to allow them to take advantage and implement these new ideas.”

And on that note the session ends. Next up, the first STEPS Centre panel session.

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