UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Venni V. Krishna

“Scientific Research in Developing Countries and UNESCO”

End of World War II and the de-colonisation process, unfolded a completely a new era for development in Asia, Latin America and Africa in the mid 1940s. It was an era of unbound optimism, wherein, influential leaders and national governments, alike, reposed tremendous faith and optimism on the role of modern science and technology in the process of rapid industrialisation, economic growth and development. This was clearly reflected in the vision of important leaders like Nehru, Mao and others in the developing world. Emerging out of the tentacles of colonial science, the major task before developing countries lay in national plans aimed at building national capacities in science and technology institutions including higher education. This presentation attempts to explore three phases in the post-war and post-colonial era stretching over five decades. The first phase stretches from 1940s to 1965; the second from 1965 to 1980s; and the third from 1990s and beyond. In doing so, particular attention is laid on the part played by UNESCO.

The birth of UNESCO in 1945 with the prominent slot for Science in the title along with education and culture, underlined the importance of science for development. With Julian Huxley as Director General, Joseph Needham, In-Charge of the Science Division and James Gerald Crowther actively engaged in committees on science and society, it was no accident that UNESCO radiated a perspective of ‘social relations of science’ (SRS) during 1940s and 1950s. This had considerable influence in the post-war science policies of several developing countries (DCs). Agencies such as the World Federation of Scientific Workers (WFSW) and International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), promoted by UNESCO in a large measure, mediated influence on the science policies of various countries. This was also the period during which UNESCO established ‘Field Science Offices’ in New Delhi, Cairo, Montevideo, Djakarta, Nairobi and in other countries. These regional offices of UNESCO played an important role to promote ‘metropolis’ science in the ‘peripheral’ countries – of what Needham called ‘periphery principle’. Through various committees, forums and international meetings the major impact of UNESCO in the first phase was to induce the vision of science policy in the developing world. It very well aligned with the S&T efforts of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America which embarked on building S&T institutional base.

The Second phase form 1965 to 1985 was mostly dominated by the concern for DCs on science and development. Aftermath of the decolonisation process, the strength of UNESCO membership more than trebled from 70 in 1950s to 140 by 1970s. A big segment of the new members were from DCs. The over bearing concern of UNESCO towards the developing countries in this phase related to the institutionalisation of science policy structures and evaluation of S&T organisation including S&T efforts. SRS discourse of the earlier phase found institutional basis to a large extent in this phase. The creation of Science Policy Division at UNESCO which sponsored and undertook more than 130 reports on various topics relating to science policy and science organisation in the DCs can be seen to reflect the SRS Philosophy. Further, a number of projects were launched from UNESCO on the organisation and performance of research groups (ICSOPRU) from a comparative perspective for almost 20 yrs during 1960s and 1980s. Structural links between DCs and UNESCO was mediated through the launching of Regional Ministerial Conferences from 1965 – which promoted science policy activities in Latin America (1965); Asia (1968); Europe and North America (1970); Africa (1974); and Arab States (1976). More than 75 countries institutionalised science policy and science planning structures. Even though scholars like Hillary Rose and Steven Rose became quite critical of UNESCO, for the lack of critical evaluation of science policy in DCs and orientation towards ‘scientism’, it had several positive influences on DCs. Some of these issues will be discussed here.
The ‘so called’ tilt towards DCs in UNESCO in this phase is not unrelated to British and US withdrawal from UNESCO in the mid 1980s. This crippled the budget of UNESCO impacting on divisions like science policy which led to its closure by the early 1990s leaving several implications for DCs.
The third phase in the context of DCs is by and large marked by several developments:
  • the economic rise of East Asian countries where S&T efforts led to economic growth and general prosperity;
  • the categorisation of Developing Countries in a somewhat homogenous form was no more tenable. There were more than three groupings (large countries like India, China, Brazil etc; East Asian NICs; middle income group of countries and poor countries etc);
  • variable impact of new technologies and ICT and biotechnology revolutions;
  • impact of globalisation and global regimes in S&T; and
  • the growing importance of innovation policies and the need for systematic S&T policy and innovation studies

The science policy division of UNESCO was closed down at a time when the DCs needed organisational and analytical inputs from such an international institutional forum. The third phase, in a large measure, witnessed a lukewarm ‘attitude’ from UNESCO in so far as the scientific research problems or science policy analysis was concerned in the DCs. This was particularly so in poor and small countries of South Asia, Africa and Latin America. Some hope rekindled with the organisation of World Science Congress at Budapest which explored to articulate a new ‘social contract of science’ for the new century and new millennium. Unfortunately, this discourse was short-lived without having any major impact on the DCs.

Mail Address Krishna@mail.jnu.ac.in
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