Speech to UNCSAT

Speaker: John Desmond Bernal;
Delivered: 1963;
HTML Markup: Pierre Marshall.

This is a speech Bernal made to the UN Conference on the Application of Science and Technology for the Benefit of the Less Developed Areas in Geneva, February 1963.


THE results of this great Conference will, when they are fully analysed, bring enormous assistance to those who are trying to further the development of science in countries that have hitherto benefited from it either not at all or very indirectly.

We in the World Federation of Scientific Workers have been occupied with this question from the outset and have had the advantage all the way through of the membership of the scientists from those countries.

The problems of under-developed countries have been one of our major preoccupations since the Federation was founded in 1946. It finds its place in the Charter for Scientific Workers adopted by the Federation:

Special Needs for Science in Undeveloped Countries

Science has been most unevenly developed, following closely the evolution of industrial communities and being relatively undeveloped in agricultural ones. We must work for the creation in all countries in as short a time as possible of an indigenous body of scientists working in conditions of political as well as economic liberty. This implies the assistance of scientific workers of the more advanced countries to educate the people and more particularly the potential scientific workers of undeveloped countries. In the meantime it is the responsibility of scientific workers in industrial countries to help the people of undeveloped countries with their urgent problems. To do this the following conditions must be observed:

  1. Application of science to most pressing local needs, e.g. development and conservation of natural resources, study of local agricultural conditions so that there may be maximum production of varied foodstuffs without soil erosion, attention to problems of health so that the same expectation of life is looked on as attainable in all parts of the world.
  2. Provision for interchange of teachers with other countries and for students to study abroad.
  3. Provision of scientific personnel and equipment from abroad to meet immediate problems on the spot as well as for the training of workers in the country concerned.
  4. Complete separation of any such schemes from economic and political control by a foreign power.

The W.F.S.W. Warsaw Symposium

In particular, the questions with which we are concerned here were considered by a conference, perhaps not as large but fully competent, at Warsaw in 1959 and are reported on briefly in my book Science for a Developing World. Naturally, in many respects and in the actual techniques of development and spread of science, this United Nations conference has gone into the question in much greater detail than was possible for us. On the other hand, there are some major points — at least, what I consider to be major points — which seem here to be less stressed than they were at Warsaw. It is to those that I want to direct most of my remarks.

I am entirely in agreement with the address of the Secretary-General, which clearly sets the problem of raising the scientific level of the whole world. But it seems to me that he has somewhat underestimated the difficulties that are deliberately put in the way of such development and over- estimated the immediate resources that are likely to be put into this great task.

As to the first, it seems, even though laying stress on the troubles caused by the cold war and the armaments race and the necessarily bad consequences to science of military secrecy in preventing full exchange of scientific information, somewhat to overlook the existence of deliberate barriers put in the way of the spread of science by restriction of travel of scientists as well as of the import of equipment. I have a very vivid memory of seeing in Shanghai the great brewery converted into a factory for the production of medical equipment, a prohibited import, and finding young university workers starting from the very beginning from textbooks to build X-ray tubes, badly needed everywhere in that vast country of China for the campaign against tuberculosis.

It is true that these prohibitions cut both ways and it might even be argued that if we absolutely stopped the distribution of scientific equipment and scientific information, people in every country would be forced to find these things out for themselves and to build up industries on their own.

This has certainly been the effect in China, but in many smaller and weaker countries the effect would be to block all scientific and technical progress.

However, it is the automatic operation of the economic aspects of scientific development that are effectively the greatest obstacle to the levelling up of the scientific and technical activity throughout the world. The enormously rapid, indeed, self-accelerating process of scientific development in the older industrial countries is undoubtedly helped by the emphasis on military development and military production. This, however much it distorts the picture of scientific advance, ensures that there will never be any shortage of funds for science. That rapid advance contrasts with the slow and painful development of science in the developing countries, and with the complete absence or stagnation of science in the under-developed countries. Indeed, the rapid advance of science in the industrial countries operates in such a way as to diminish the scientific effort in the developing countries by drawing away from them some of the inadequate number of scientists they produce. Some years ago it was reckoned that a third of the Indian students who went to the United States for scientific training never returned and I know that some of those who did — in fact the majority to my knowledge — found themselves when they returned unable to obtain posts in which they could effectively use the knowledge they had acquired abroad. This is a situation which, unless something is done about it, is likely to get worse rather than better. It is one, certainly, to which this conference ought to devote itself.

The less developed areas

The conference is concerned primarily with the less developed areas of the world. These areas are not determined by geographical accident, but rather by climatic and geological factors. They are for the most part in a great belt which covers the tropics; they contain areas of both very high and very low population density, largely determined by the yields of the traditional agriculture. Their present condition is a direct consequence of the industrial revolution in Europe and North America. They have become, and largely still are, raw material producing areas — oil, minerals, so-called tropical products, ranging from cotton to coffee. Insofar as they have any advanced agriculture it is cash-crop agriculture, for the rest it is subsistence agriculture working in increasingly unfavourable circumstances.

Their pattern of scientific research, meagre as it is, follows that of these economic realities. At the Warsaw Symposium speaker after speaker from these countries brought out the basic difference between the old patterns of scientific research, dependent on the exploitation of this part of the world, and the new pattern, in which the peoples of the countries try to use science for their own benefits and not for those of their exploiters. Naturally, this was not considered in Europe or America as exploitation, quite the contrary; it was part of a consciously held economic philosophy, namely, that in one part of the world raw materials were produced by rather crude methods and using cheap, so-called “native” labour and that in another part of the world the raw materials were made into manufactured goods using the most modern techniques so that these goods could be used, for the most part, by the inhabitants of the more advanced part of the world and a residuum could be sent back for the benefit of the said “natives.” This is the doctrine of the Manchester School, where it originated.

Very few defend the Manchester School in these days but its effects are still very much with us. The pattern of scientific research over the whole area of the less developed countries is based on stations, stations concerned with the production of cash-crops — tea research, rubber research, etc. Research on the other raw materials, oil and minerals, is usually carried out in the European or American countries and the operation of these surveying and extraction methods is one of the most powerful means of effectively preventing inhabitants of countries possessing the natural resources from developing them themselves. For Africa, this has been very' well documented in Lord Hailey’s Science in Africa which takes this attitude for granted throughout.

A new pattern of research

Now, it is clear that it will be necessary to break away from this pattern altogether if there is to be any serious development of science, based on the people of the, countries which are to utilise it. This is extremely difficult. In the first place, with political liberation there has not usually come a corresponding economic liberation. The outstanding exception is the People’s Republic of China, which is outside this conference. The economies of these countries are just as much dependent on their minerals and cash-crops as they were before and to the same extent dependent on research into their effective production. Research is not now merely a matter of finding better ways of producing and increasing crop yields and so forth, it is also a vital necessity. The moment research stops or even slackens, the diseases which at least it kept in check arise again and may ruin entirely the economy of the country.

The very distribution of research and its application in the medical field is also closely related to the economic pattern. A reasonably healthy population is required to work the mines and the plantations. The great achievements of tropical medicine at the end of the last and the beginning of this century have been concentrated in just those areas where such exploitation was carried out most effectively, for instance, in Malaya.

Research departments, where they exist, need not be abandoned but increased: they must be balanced by other research institutes dealing with the more immediate questions of interest to the people, namely, the improvement, in the first place, of the subsistence aspect of agriculture, the production of food not for export, and with problems of industrialization. One of the major questions is that of priorities between agricultural and industrial development. This is an enormously difficult and intricate problem varying from place to place but it is clearly not to be solved by putting all the emphasis on one side or the other. The slogan of the Chinese — “walking on two legs,” agriculture and industry — has enabled them to surmount, not without loss, the terrible natural disasters of the last few years, without abandoning their great industrial and scientific progress.

Agriculture and industry

Those who are advocating an improvement of agriculture without industrialization or large plants, overlook, the enormous differences that can be made by comparatively small additions which can only come from industrialization and that on the spot. I would cite the use of electricity in agriculture, particularly in tropical agriculture, primarily for pumping water for higher level irrigation. The suitable siting of big power stations, hydroelectric, thermal or possibly even, in the next few years, atomic, would probably make more difference to food production and general welfare than any other equivalent activity, though that of producing transport facilities and agricultural machines runs it close. The latter, however, can be imported ready made whereas the former requires engineering works on the spot and, incidentally, produces far more employment.

One of the major problems that must be solved in turning from a colonial type research to one based on the people, is to remove the foreign character of research. This means — and I think this has been realised fully here — that research is only the end of a process of education but that at the same time it is impracticable to wait until the educational system has been built up through primary and secondary schools to universities and postgraduate research before undertaking the necessary research to deal with current and urgent problems. Therefore, a certain foreign element will remain but will have to be phased out gradually. In the meantime the maintenance and development of science will have to depend on the enthusiasm of the people for its development and use.

This enthusiasm does not seem to be at all difficult to create, although it is more difficult to make it effective. The thirst for knowledge seems to be universal. I have certainly seen it in every continent I have visited, but I feel that the form of education needs enormous changes to make it really suitable for rapid absorption in a growing and developing community. Much of what we teach is trivial and unnecessary, but it will be sought after as long as it is understood to be part of the mystique of the more powerful industrial civilizations.

Nor can agriculture and industry be separated for another reason, that of the need to cure one of the major curses of the less developed areas, namely, rural unemployment. The pattern of employment in agriculture, even in tropical countries, has been the uneven distribution of work throughout the year: the necessity for a large labour force at one time and there being nothing for them to do for most of the rest. It is in this respect that the great agricultural revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was most successful. It did not necessarily cultivate any better than was cultivated previously: in many respects it cultivated worse, but it could cultivate land without having to carry the large number of men and women needed for harvest and who almost of necessity eat up something like eighty to ninety per cent of the product instead of the five or less per cent which they do today in the most advanced agricultural countries.

Local conditions

Many experts here have been considering the proper pattern of research for less developed countries. Clearly it will differ according to the general climatic and agricultural as well as cultural history of the country. But one thing should be clear: it will depend on local conditions, it will have to be done locally and for the most part by the inhabitants of the country. The foreign expert, although he is probably more needed than ever before, must be considered as a temporary benefactor. A great deal of the most urgent research will need to be of the form of developmental and adaptation research. Until a country has its own industry and can make the machines suitable for its own needs, it must depend on those from abroad but they must be adapted to the particular needs of the country. This applies especially to agricultural machinery and almost as much to fertilisers and insecticides.

A very effective kind of such development research is operational development research, namely, the discovery of the ways in which the economy of a country could be benefited most quickly and at least expense. A study of the complete agricultural food chain, beginning with planting the crop and ending with eating the harvest, can show what caused the major losses — failure to grow, for instance, poor growth or subsequent destruction by insect pests or moulds. Arising from such studies, very small adaptations have been found to produce remarkable results. The food actually available for consumption can be nearly doubled by preventing its wastage. In a similar way, the nutritional value of the food can be increased by the use of other food crops,

possibly in quite small quantities; these crops may be known in other countries but not where nutritional diseases may be produced by their absence. Here is one of the great possibilities of advance due to international co-operation. An example is the widespread use of South American tilapia fish which is of multiple value in most wet tropical lands and provides much needed protein.

A phased plan

I hope that one of the major results of this very impressive conference Where more information can be brought together than has ever been before in the history of the world, will be the appearance of something like a phased plan for the utilization of science for human welfare. Some idea of such a plan was apparent in the Warsaw Symposium of our Federation but the one that could be made as a result of this Conference would be much more concrete.

It may be premature to do much more now than talk about the plan, but at least it will bring out the obstacles to any such activity. The very existence of such a plan presupposes a common interest in the development of all parts of the world. Yet this runs quite counter to very strong tendencies, already mentioned, to restrict the development of certain parts of the world which are considered dangerous and also counter to the older and simpler desire to have such development as will produce the maximum profit to those who are best placed to make it. But if we could get rid of these obstructions, or even in the process of getting rid of them, it would be_possible to consider the whole world as a field for a grand operation of development and improvement through the use of science.

I lay stress on the idea of a phased plan because it is evident from the very existence of this Conference that the level of development is very different in different parts of the world and the resources for producing it are also very unevenly distributed. The difficulty is not one of the distribution of the material resources: actually, those required by science are comparatively small and relatively easily transported. Laboratories of the most modern kind can be set up in any part of the world in a matter of a few months. They have to be paid for; but what is more important here is that they have to be manned, and this is the essential difficulty. There is a very limited supply of trained scientific manpower and a part of this must be set aside to train the rest. One of the major problems confronting us is the relative priority of research and teaching. But granted we know what our manpower resources are and have some idea of the needs and relative rates of advance desirable in different areas, it should not be impossible, by the kind of organization suggested by the Secretary-General, to devise a plan for the most effective use of these resources in a relatively short time, that is, in a matter of from ten to twenty years.

Local responsibility

This means tackling the problem on the national, the area and then on the world level. True that the first stage of de-colonisation — and this particularly in Africa but hardly less so in certain parts of Asia and Latin America — has resulted in national units which are much too small and artificially divided from each other. This is a political problem bedeveilled by the cold war and by the economic interests of the older colonial powers. Economically, Africa south of the Sahara is essentially a unit, or would divide reasonably into no more than four or five areas. If, as a result of this conference it is possible to organise some kind of supra-national area for scientific development, so much the better. But — and this is a point which I think would bear insisting on — the essential responsibility must lie with the local national government, otherwise the flavour of the old colonialism would remain much too strongly to hope for the real active, popular co-operation which is required.

When I speak, therefore, of phased planning, I mean the co-ordination of national plans after discussion into a more general one in which actual stages of development in different areas would be organised so as to follow one after the other, using the same body of scarce experts, international experts, to carry out the various stages of building laboratories, starting industries and so forth. Such a master plan of development which is built on all the national plans seems essential if we are to get away from the present casual and very uneven pattern of development to one which makes the maximum use of the resources both of the industrialised countries and of the newly emerging, less developed ones.

Co-operation of scientists

I hope the outline of such a plan can come out of these Geneva discussions but it will be absolutely necessary to set up some continuing body with sufficient staffing and equipment to deal with the multiplicity of problems presented. I do not minimise, in the present confused, unstable and divided world, how difficult it would be to get such a plan made or put into operation, but I think the very existence of the plan would itself prove a stimulus to unity and to effort. At least people could see what was possible and then would be more apt to demand that the possible be turned into the actual.

After all, the people who are really going to operate such a plan will be the scientists and technologists themselves their understanding and their active co-operation is absolutely essential. Up to now only a relatively small number, definitely a minority, have risen to this idea largely because most have not seen it, or, having seen it, have deemed it impracticable. By presenting it in this way and by asking for their active co-operation in it, it will be possible to multiply the scientific forces behind the plan. Here is the work which the World Federation of Scientific Workers has been advancing for years and now we hope that it will advance more actively and on a broader front.