Science in the service of the developing world

27 May 2011

A Connections Lecture by Darwin College in association with the Centre for Science and Policy

"Anything that moves against economic development is against development." This observation by Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) at the Department for International Development (DfID), provides the context within which the science team at DfID operates. Professor Whitty’s role as CSA is to advise on how science can stimulate and facilitate development through new technologies, better ways of delivering existing technologies and understanding the environment to allow better decision-making.

In a world where populations are growing and ecosystems changing, global food and water security are a constant and increasing challenge. Environmental and political changes always have the biggest impact on the poor.

Professor Whitty’s lecture was a rapid overview of an extremely broad field: the role of science and technology in development. In particular, he focussed on food security and health, as well as touching on natural disasters and climate change.

Food security

Professor Whitty noted that the relationship between food security and development are complex and they do not always sit comfortably together. In addition, the security of supply and price of food – although it receives little political attention in the developed world – is of a major concern in developing countries where people can spend as much as two-thirds of their income on food.

In terms of the scientific contribution to food security, there are a number of things that can be done. Yields can be improved by introducing new crop varieties that are disease and pest resistant; and others that are flood, drought, frost, heat or salt resistant. In some cases, but by no means all, GM crops offer improved varieties but Professor Whitty pointed to an "intellectual contamination" of the debate which is inhibiting adoption, for example, in India.

There are also things that can be done to improve farming practices. For example, making better use of water, nitrogen and phosphates. One particularly compelling example is the case of the brown planthopper, a major rice pest. It used to be the case that farmers would try to control brown planthopper infestation by using more pesticide. However, scientific research demonstrated that the increased spraying was killing the planthopper’s natural predators, and that the best strategy is to stop spraying; in a couple of seasons they reduce to negligible numbers.

At the final stages of food production – harvesting and transportation – there are interventions and strategies that can be implemented to reduce food loss. However, it is important to integrate solutions into each cultural context. For example, significant improvements can be made in the losses of nut harvests by storing the nuts on wooden pallets. In one trial, these were handed out, to great effect, but during the cold winter the pallets were used for firewood.


On 25 May 2011, rinderpest, an infectious viral disease of cattle, was officially eradicated. This is only the second disease to have been successfully eradicated in history, yet this milestone received little or no coverage when it was announced. Perhaps the lack of coverage was because, unlike the eradication of smallpox, rinderpest impacts on food production ­rather than directly the health of people.

Advances in health in the developing world have in some cases been impressive, but there is a still a long way to go. Vaccines, for example, have had a tremendous impact, but the rate of progress is slowing. There are some diseases for which vaccine production has proved extremely difficult. For example, in 1967 it was declared that a vaccine for malaria was only seven years away and yet we are still waiting.

In the case of polio – which has been on the brink of eradication for a decade – the vaccine is good, but that has not proved sufficient. In Nigeria, uptake of the vaccine has been hampered following claims made by a preacher that polio is a disease from the West to make Muslims sterile. It did not help that the polio vaccine containers were all labelled "sterile".

In some cases, new vaccines are not needed. Malaria, HIV, trachoma and diarrhoea can all be reduced to trivial levels using existing techniques. In other cases, the existing techniques are far from ideal; for example, the drugs for trypanosomiasis (a fatal parasitic disease commonly known as sleeping sickness) kill 5% of people who take them.


While science has a lot to offer development efforts, Professor Whitty suggests there are always practicalities to consider. For example, an intervention might be effective but that does not necessarily mean that it is cost effective. Other considerations include the ability of societies to pay for interventions, or having the necessary infrastructure to distribute interventions.

The reality, he argued, is that carbon-based development is cheaper than non-carbon-based development and when development is what a country needs – when that is the democratic mandate given to its political leaders – that is how they will go and get it.

Professor Whitty closed his lecture for calling for better balance and higher quality research on development. He suggested that there is a need for more social science research, more private sector investment in research for the developing world and urged scientists to spend more time trying to find solutions for world problems rather than problems to fit their solutions.

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