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IUPAC-AAPAC Joint Meeting on Chemistry in the Development of Africa
Durban, Republic of South Africa, 11 July 1998


Introductory Remarks
IUPAC and Chemistry in Developing Countries

by Prof. Dr. Joshua Jortner
President, IUPAC

Scientific Development: New Opportunities, Old Challenges

Those of you with experience in countless past efforts to promote chemistry-related development in DCs will be quick to remind me that these ideas are not new, neither to the world development agencies nor to IUPAC, which has often been a true pioneer. Yet I posit that the current rapid pace of:

  • Globalization,
  • Scientific and technological advances,
  • Information technology
  • Population growth

    raises both the urgency of longstanding DC problems and the feasibility of their solution to a new, unprecedented level.

    For example, revolutions in electronic communication, data access and networking, intelligently used and consistently supported (in an area where long-term maintenance is as vital as it is difficult), can dramatically reduce the geographical barriers, political barriers, isolation and fragmentation that have hampered DC scientists in the past. Today many chemists in developed countries prefer to do their literature searches automatically from their office PC, via the Internet, rather than scurrying about the subterranean caverns of their local university library, manually flipping the pages of dusty indices and bound journal volumes. Indeed, if they want to get fresher information, they will search their electronic bulletin boards, subspecialty networks and e-mail contacts, all of which transcend national boundaries. The same can now be done, with equal - indeed greater impact, in DCs, for what developed-country scientists do as a matter of convenience, scientists in DCs must do as a matter of necessity. The provision and maintenance of information technology infrastructure is a clear prerequisite for optimal benefit of this opportunity.

    The keys are equipment (modest), training, initial contacts, functioning access to electronic networks, databases and publications, and long-term maintenance and support. "Long-term" is the most challenging operative phrase here. Progress by Brownian motion - short, random leaps - is slow at best. Research collaborations and equipment that disappear or fall into disuse every two to three years with the conclusion, successful or not, of yet another touted but effervescent short-term "initiative" can't replace lasting, long-term relationships. Similarly, interactive CD texts and simulations - on both the macroscopic, microscopic and molecular level - can revolutionize our ideas about intellectually stimulating, high-quality training and its near universal availability.

    This picture of change and new opportunities for intervention and growth must, however, be balanced by an honest account of what has not changed in developing countries, or has changed more slowly. No organization, no matter how well-meaning, can overlook the crucial fact that research and development work - anything beyond communication and information exchange - is still very, very difficult in DCs. Broad generalizations will not suffice, because ultimate success is often in the details.

    For example, a U.S. scientist may simply order advanced equipment and have it installed and running on the day of delivery a week later. A developing country scientist may have problems with locating and evaluating equipment, local currency controls and fluctuations, customs controls, uncertain or spotty delivery, "siphonage" of funds or other resources at various levels, institutional politics, training operators, maintaining contamination-free environments, obtaining high-grade supplies, water and electricity (of appropriate phase, voltage, stability, continuity, etc.), compatibility with domestic and international communications systems and existing equipment (often from a hodge-podge of donors of different nations and eras), and a host of other difficulties undreamed of by his OECD colleagues. As a friend of mine, who regularly visited both European expert meetings and remote LDC laboratories for the USAID, once wryly noted, "It is definitely easier doing research and development work in Switzerland."

    Advanced technology will not obviate the need for more widespread and detailed understanding of :

    • Needs
    • Conditions
    • Preconditions
      of DCs for active scientific progress.

    So while some aspects have suddenly become radically more easy and effective, others remain difficult. To intelligently use technically based approaches to help ameliorate the latter remains part of our challenge, and, always, we must not lose sight of the correspondingly high stakes involved. On the technical front: better science, better distribution of the benefits of science, better adaptation and use of new scientific advances to accommodate expanding world populations, and the food/energy/environment pressures they create. On the social side: increased scientific activity, contact and cooperation, which can help "open up" societies in DCs to international trends and norms, preventing their stagnation and helping integrate them into an increasingly interdependent world.

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