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Science and Technology: Vehicle for development

WE LIVE in an age of Science and Technology (S&T) driven society. Today our lives are pervasively influenced and made exceedingly dependent on products of technology. Never in the human history, has the world changed so quickly and so dramatically over the last century, and all that has happened is due to unprecedented advances in S&T. These advances have dominantly come from the West which, understandably, have helped them in wealth creation and economic development.
They continue to dominate in S&T research and development, and are reaping the benefits from it in many ways.
However, this monopoly of west-driven scientific research and development, is now slowly being broken down by the countries of other regions such as Japan, China, South Korea, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and a few others. Increasingly a substantial part of global S&T research contribution is now coming from outside of the western soil.
It is important to realise that S&T has become the principal vehicle of development in the modern world.
If any country – big or small, developing or least developed, believes that progress can come without investment in S&T, it must be living under illusion. Without adequate infrastructure and building a critical mass of human resource in this field, a country cannot even properly utilise available modern technology.
The countries mentioned above, understood this reality well in time and started heavy investments in S&T over half a century ago. These were the visionary steps taken by their leaders that had far reaching consequences.
They created new institutions and strengthened their existing academic institutions and research facilities.
They also developed massive programs on human resource development. As a result, now they are already enjoying the fruits of their investment and moving far ahead of the rest of the developing world.
These countries have now become important players in the global economy and have significantly uplifted the socio-economic condition of their people within just a few decades.
The achievements have come only through long-term vision, planning and investment in S&T.
Today, the poorest countries in the world (approximately over 80 in number) are those lagging in S&T, where investment in research infrastructure and human resource development have always remained inadequate or non-existent.
The countries that still prefer to continue neglecting investment in S&T and human resource development are destined to remain behind, and may find it difficult to break the vicious cycle of poverty and suffering of their people for a long time to come.
Research in S&T and capacity-building do not come free and cannot be achieved overnight as well. No doubt, it requires a prolonged investment of a good proportion of the GDP against other pressing national agenda issues.
But this investment is inevitable for sustainable development of the country. At the same time, it requires vision, long-term planning, consistent policies, proper priority settings; and above all the sustained political commitment by every successive government.
In the Zambian context, there seems much more to be achieved in the fields of S&T and capacity building. The enthusiasm and earnestness in S&T education and development that existed in the early days after independence needs to be re-energised.
It is high time now to invest adequately in upgrading and modernising research facilities in the universities and institutions most of which were set up nearly half a century ago. A vibrant, research oriented academic environment in every faculty and research institutions is a prerequisite to S&T development.
Well-funded academic and research institutions are not a choice but a necessity. Enhanced international cooperation, particularly the south-south co-operation, will greatly benefit the country.
One should not forget that the Zambian economy is still heavily dependent on mineral resource exploration and exploitation which is essentially a S&T driven enterprise. Even to get the most out of this sector needs a strong S&T base at home.
Zambia is yet to have a properly constituted (by the act of parliament) Science Academy, leaving it far behind even among many other African countries.
A Science Academy is like a guardian, and works as an engine for promotion of S&T in a country. It normally functions as a trusted advisor to the government on all aspects of S&T policy development and evaluation. Without a state-supported independent Science Academy that can give objective and evidence-based advice or opinion, the country will lack a vital organisation that could effectively act as a catalyst for the promotion of science and technology in the country.
It also acts as a strong link between society and Government. In addition, the activities such as periodic organisation of National Science Congress and other national and international scientific meetings and engagement of increased number of scientists in research and innovation only can help to keep S&T alive in a country. However, without the availability of adequate research funds from the state to run these activities, S&T does not move far.
Developing countries like Zambia, understandably, have many pressing priorities that demand resource allocation. But only a strong thrust in S&T backed by adequate investment can carry the country forward, reduce poverty, fuel economic growth and make it capable of smooth surfing over the increasingly competitive world of today.
Or else, there is a danger that for many more decades the country may lag behind and keep progress sluggish. The lost opportunity for not acting on time may haunt the country for a long time to come.
Finally, the foundation of S&T development lies in the education system. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that emphasis on high quality school education in mathematics and science cannot be over-emphasised for securing a good S&T future of the country.
The author is a professor in the Department of Geology, School of Mines at the University of Zambia and a fellow of the World Academy of Sciences and Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.