Some Practical Problems of Starting Scientific Research in Newly Developing Countries

Author: John Desmond Bernal;
Publisher: World Federation of Scientific Workers, 40 Goodge Street, London, W1;
Published: 1965;
Printer: Lawrence Bros. Ltd. (Weston-super-Mare);
HTML Markup: Pierre Marshall.

This is Bernal's written contribution to the UN Conference on the Application of Science and Technology for the Benefit of the Less Developed Areas in Geneva, February 1963. It was first published in Scientific World (Vol. 11, No. 1, 1965).


THE QUESTION of the relation between national research institutes and the universities and other research institutes depends essentially on the existing or proposed scientific set-up. In many countries there will be in fact only national research institutes and universities. But “other research institutes” I interpret here to mean research institutes in the same country. Now the problem is really one of dividing the subject to be studied, or researched on, between the institutes and the universities. For a long time, particularly in the Soviet Union, the tendency was to concentrate all research in the research institutes and to leave to the universities the relatively narrow task of completing teaching up to the level of bachelor’s degree (that is, in the Soviet Union, candidate’s degree) and then leaving all subsequent post-graduate research up to doctor’s degree to the institutes. This may have had a justification at the beginning and may still have in the countries that are starting work, on the grounds that there is such a shortage of scientific cadres that it is necessary to limit the operation of the universities to teaching, and that the university teachers in the first years of their work must not expect to do any research. However, as maturity approached, it is quite clear that it will be necessary to concentrate a great deal more on research in the universities and this is already being done in the new reforms in the Soviet Union. I feel this should be aimed at, and that it is impossible to do reasonable teaching in any science unless research is going on in the same body. There is one possible escape from this which was practised in the Soviet Union and which may be essential in newly developing countries, namely the fact that the teachers in the universities are the same people as the research workers in the national institutes. They have got double jobs and may or may not receive double pay for them. But the point is that it is done one way or another. The separation of university teaching from any kind of research is fatal to scientific development. It has already been remarked by some of the speakers that people trained in their universities are quite incapable of undertaking any research because they have no experience of it.

The next point is that a rational division can be combined with a flow of problems, as Auger said in his initial report, a flow of problems in a cycle, from theory to practice and from practice back to theory — what I have called elsewhere research arising out of difficulties of application. This process would mean that if it is decided to carry out certain research in the universities and other research in institutes there should be a daily contact between the two. This has not been the case and certainly is not the case in Britain today. The relations with other research institutes, i.e. in the first place other research institutes in the countries themselves, will depend upon the type of social system. The other research institutes in the advanced capitalist countries are nearly always private industrial institutes or military research institutes. The subject of our conference does not include military research institutes, but I will only say that less-developed countries must beware of trying to do military research. This is not only because it will so much diminish the capacity of their limited research resources, but also because any military research they may do is quite certain to be useless, because they can never expect to get in advance of the countries with much greater capacity, who have been in the business for many years. I should advise the science departments in these countries to limit military research to such matters as for instance, on transport or other auxiliary things, as the major military research is useless.

Research in Industry

Relations with research institutes in industry are, however, a much more difficult and complicated problem. First of all there is a tendency to a central attitude in industrial research that the major industrial research advances are made by a very few large research institutes, mostly at the present moment situated in the USA, and that they do not usually like research of an industrial character to be carried on in any of the subsidiary branches that they have in other countries. Much more likely is the removal of this research and the personnel carrying it out to the central body. The tendency, which has been much commented on in this Conference, of the emigration of young scientists, particularly to the USA, is to a certain extent in the process of being remedied, but not very happily. It is being discovered that if you take young research workers who have been trained in their own country at great expense in a struggling economy and remove them to America, you can get the benefit of their training but you then have to pay them American salaries. It would be much simpler, and this is now becoming more regular practice, to let them work on European, Asian or other salaries in their own countries. But in this instance the results of their work no longer belong to their country but belong to the firm employing them and paying for the research. I know these remarks will cause a certain amount of indignation, but they cannot be neglected and they certainly cannot be contradicted.

Relations between national institutes

I now come to a point that is not on the agenda but I think should appear at this level, namely, the relationship between national research institutes in different countries and particularly between the national research institutes in the highly developed countries and those in the less developed countries. Here I think we have to steer between two dangers: there is a tendency, which has been very apparent in this Conference, to suggest that the more difficult and certainly the more fundamental aspects of research can only be dealt with in the more advanced countries, and that it would be a mistake and a waste of effort for the less-developed countries, particularly for those who are just starting in research, to attempt to carry on this research. Further, that they should rely on the research results of the other countries. This is clearly what might be called a scientific aspect of neo-colonialism. It is a matter of having not only the manufacture of goods carried out in other countries but also the acquisition of knowledge. The result in the long run is bound to be to destroy the capacity for real independence in the less-developed countries, because no country that is not capable, as it were, of thinking of itself, can expect really to manage its own affairs. That is one danger. The other danger, which is the opposite one is — and I have seen this only too often — to attempt in a country With very small scientific resources, however big its natural resources, to carry out the whole range of scientific and technical research. The result is that researches are certainly carried out, and no doubt they are of some use for training young people; but the results are not likely to be of any particular value and at the best they cannot be of the same value as work already carried out in places which are more advanced. Most of the research I have seen in many parts of the world — in Latin America, Africa and Asia — is in itself either somewhat successful research on relatively trivial subjects, such as ingenious methods for making bangles, or rather poor research covering fields which are already known in other places.

Documentation centres

Here I think the most important immediate step is to reinforce the action of UNESCO to see that information really gets around. In many cases the research done in the less-developed countries has been done elsewhere, but no one in the less-developed countries knows that it has been done elsewhere, because of the complete confusion and difficulty of handling the scientific data. The setting up of documentation centres in more countries and the amplification of their activity in what might be called a positive direction — i.e. not only providing information on request, but actually offering it to people that they know in advance will want to use it — can go a certain distance in this respect. But it can never be sufficient, because the problems that are set in the more advanced countries are not the same, and considerable modifications will be required which can only be carried out by people on the spot.

Another way out of the difficulty which avoids both these dangers is by the cross-linking of research institutes in different countries on the same subject. In certain cases this can be a matter of simple substitution: for instance, if there is a region of similar climatic conditions and natural products of an agricultural type (such crops as coffee or cocoa) it is not necessary to have research institutes on all these crops in each country. The old arrangements under the colonial regime still have something to recommend them, even though they will require very considerable political modification to become acceptable. In many cases — I do not know how far this affects the ex-French colonies, but it certainly does the British colonies — the admirable system of joint research institutes has been broken up and I think it will need to be reformed if the fullest value is to be got out of the rather rare research resources. A very good example of what can be done is on a subject which I know very well, namely building research. From Geneva, just after the war, I was instrumental in getting started what might be called an international building research institute. We can now say, at any rate for the more advanced countries, that the results of building research are known, and, what is more, research plans can be made centrally of which the different parts are carried out in different research institutes and then coordinated. This also implies great possibilities of standardization, essential in this field. The same effort, however, has not been so successful when we go outside the industrialized countries. I have visited a number of building research institutes in less-developed countries very often staffed by excellent building research men who have come from the industrial countries. But where they have failed is in adapting themselves to the local needs. They are still concerned with the use of the expensive materials and techniques which they have been used to in their own countries. The first problem, that is of finding out how things are built and how things might be built in these less-developed countries, really re-mains to be tackled. I have also noticed a consider-able separation, which ought not to exist, between the university architectural departments and the building research institutes in the same country.

They operate as if they belonged to quite different worlds. This may be alright in an industrial country, where architecture is concerned with beauty, more or less, and engineering with whether a thing can be built at all, or at a reasonable price; but you cannot afford that in a less-developed country. You have to consider that the whole of building should be coordinated, and coordinated on an original basis. There is quite clearly scope for “arid zone architecture,” for “forest zone architecture,” for “monsoon architecture” and so on. All these involve a mixture of research subjects such as meteorology and agriculture. They have to take full account of social and tribal habits, although less so than we usually think. The tendency to adapt very readily to European housing methods, even when unsuitable, is one of the most marked features of less-developed countries. Now all this requires large-scale re-search organization, which at the present moment can be carried out only by such an organization as UNESCO. I realize there has been much discussion on this here, and I would like to state my views quite categorically. UNESCO, which unites in itself the whole of the natural sciences, both physical and biological, is the appropriate organisation to do it. I would add that UNESCO, as at present constituted, is quite incapable of doing it, because it lacks the resources. Something in the order of three times, in the first place, rising to ten times its present budget is required. It could then undertake the function of rationally coordinating research in subject by subject in every country, it being left to the national research organs in each country to coordinate the research in different subjects.

Planned research

The first stage of attempting to solve any of these problems is to be fully aware of the solutions already reached and of the experience which people have had in reaching them. What has surprised me in this discussion is that there has been relatively little comment from those countries where scientific research on a planned basis was first started and which have really been the inspiration to all the ideas which have been put forward in this meeting, i.e. from the Soviet Union. We should be able to make use of all the Soviet experience; but beyond this there are many countries that have been developing research in a planned way, from a basis which has been very much poorer than the Soviet Union, and that are not represented here at all. I cite, of course, the crucial example of the Peoples Republic of China. It would be completely absurd to attempt to discuss the development of research from a low material level without taking into account the experience of China, if for no other reason than to show how rapidly this can be done in spite of every disadvantage, both natural and imposed by hostile powers. Further, we know something of this and it can be found in the book Science for a Developing World in which the Chinese experience is fully reported. In any future organization for the proper use of science for development of the less-developed countries this experience is absolutely necessary, not only the experience as recorded, but the active help of Chinese scientists and technicians who have done this work themselves and know it can be undertaken.

I should add, as a last point, that the major feature of scientific research has been very much neglected throughout this Conference, namely the absolute necessity of involving the people themselves, both as workers and as consumers, with the job of scientific research. It is not something to be done for people, but with people and by people.