From May 18-20th in Oslo, Norway, along with participants from some 40 countries and organizations around the world, I attended an “experts workshop” on Science, Technology and Innovation to Address Global Challenges. The meeting was organized jointly under OECD auspices by the Norwegian and German Ministries of Education and Research
The agenda included presentations and discussions on issues such as priority setting, funding, capacity building, and…
Well, this is your wake up call.
The Oslo meeting was far from a garden variety bureaucratic encounter. The rubber really hit the road during the final substantive session, which was innocuously entitled “Delivering Benefits.” At that point in the proceedings a consensus began to develop around a single, somewhat terrifying realization: If international policy and decision-makers cannot be convinced that a radical course correction is needed, then in the not too distant future the world may reach a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.
The consequences could well be catastrophic.
To understand how a group assembled by such a respectable institution as the OECD could reach such a disturbing conclusion, some sense of the over-arching analytical narrative is required. My interpretation of the fundamental line of argument goes something like this.
In the globalization era, the most profound challenges to human survival — climate change, public health, diminishing biodiversity, and resource scarcity, to name a few — are rooted in science and driven by technology. Moreover, underdevelopment and insecurity, far more than religious extremism or political violence, represent fundamental threats to world order. In this context, the capacity to generate, absorb and use science and technology (S&T) could play a crucial role in improving security and development prospects. Addressing the needs of the poor, and bridging the digital divide could similarly become a pre-occupation of diplomacy.
Although poverty reduction contributes to development, and development is the flip side of security, S&T issues are largely alien to, and almost invisible within most international policy institutions. National governments, foreign ministries, development agencies, and indeed most multilateral organizations are without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or research and development (R&D) network access required to manage effectively. If this is to change, and in order to examine the remedial possibilities, politicians, opinion leaders and senior officials must be critically aware of both the dynamic inter-relationships among principal actors and the key questions and issues at play.
Unfortunately, their preoccupations lie almost entirely elsewhere.
The lion’s share of international policy resources are at present devoted to the military, which according to the rationale outlined above represents a colossal, and extremely costly misallocation. With a dominant international policy focus in many industrialized countries on counter-terrorism and the struggle against religious extremism and political violence, the threats and challenges which most imperil the planet remain largely unaddressed.
All told, this tale amounts to one terribly disturbing disconnect.
Because not only are the dots not joined-up.
In most cases, there are no dots.
Whatever comes out of the Oslo meeting, it clearly will not, in itself, be enough to save the world. But if the project contributes to a more acute and widely-shared awareness of the real threat set, then we may all emerge at least with something in rather short supply under the present circumstances.