The knowledge monopoly

April 11, 1997

Peruvian Francisco Sagasti appeals to scientists for a little more equality in the global order of knowledge

When Francisco Sagasti addressed this year's opening session of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, he shared the stage with some of the world's most eminent scientists.

After hearing from the British government's chief scientific adviser, Robert May, and from the Chinese and Russian scientific spokesmen, Professor Sagasti, the last speaker, took to the stage. The subject under discussion was the emergence of a global scien-tific village. Sagasti, director of an independent organisation, attempting to promote dialogue on the future of Peru, gave it a new twist.

An elegant man who combines western urgency with Latin graces, Sagasti, 52, believes human development has reached a "critical point". He sees the end of the 20th century as a period when man's power over nature is at an all time high; yet also as a time when the negative consequences of that control - pollution and environmental degradation and the uneven distribution of knowledge, wealth and power - have reached a disturbing level. The former chairman of the United Nations Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for Development, spoke for the south of the globe, for the hundreds of countries and millions of people without technological expertise, for whom the science of sanitation and health care is at least as pressing as that of Buckyballs and solar winds.

"The success of (science) has led to the emergence of what may be called a fractured global order," he said. "This is an order that is global but not integrated; an order that puts all of us in contact with each other, but simultaneously maintains deep fissures between different groups of countries and between peoples within countries; an order that benefits a small percentage of humanity and segregates a large portion of the world's population."

Of particular concern to Sagasti, because of the profound consequences he says it has for all other aspects of the global order, is the divide in scientific capability between poor and rich countries. "The last four centuries have been marked by the rise of science as the dominant method of generating knowledge about the world that surrounds us," he said. "Scientific advances, the evolution of technology and the transformation of productive and service activities have become closely intertwined in the dynamic sectors of the world economy, which are an almost exclusive preserve of the highly industrialised nations. In the rest of the world, knowledge, technology and production have remained wide apart, with local forms of knowledge generation relegated to a marginal role at best."

The danger is that "the great divide between those peoples who have the capacity to generate and utilise knowledge and those who do not, could rapidly become an impassable abyss. If we do not do something over the next few years we will create a group of countries and people with nothing to lose, and that will breed drugs, crime and terrorism."

Sagasti looks to Peru, where 72 politicians and dignitaries have been held hostage by rebels for the past three months, and to the whole of the South American continent for evidence of his fears. But the story is similar in large areas of Africa and Asia, says Sagasti, who was himself among the original group of almost 300 taken hostage in the Japanese embassy in Lima.

The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were periods of huge investment in education in South America with the blossoming of higher education, universities and research institutes. But in the 1980s, in what South Americans aptly title "the lost decade", one economic crisis after another led to the slashing of resources for science and technology. "Laboratories and research institutes that had taken 15 or 20 years to build were in some cases destroyed in three or four years," says Sagasti, who describes the flood of scientists from Latin America during this period to laboratories elsewhere. "The region lost ground in the 1980s and has not been able to catch up."

According to Sagasti the challenge, as we head towards the 21st century, is to avoid global fractures, which he sees as dividing the Earth, from becoming permanent. Science bases must be developed, but he adds: "Most of us in the developing world can no longer hold to the illusion that we can reach the levels of production, consumption and of course waste, that characterise the industrial nations of today, not, at least, without irreparable damage to the environment. I think we have to very seriously rethink what we mean by development."

Peruvian-born Sagasti, neither of whose parents finished high school, is no stranger to the world arena. An engineer by training, he left Peru at 21, spending a year in London before moving to the US and working in development and science policy in Latin America. After a stint as head of strategic planning at the World Bank, Sagasti returned to his home country in a bid to help improve its fractured, almost non-existent, science base. Now he envisages the reinventing of his nation's science base "in a way which does not reject the traditions we have".

"If we close our eyes to traditional knowledge, technology and culture, we will be missing an enormous part of what makes a country and a people unique. The challenge faced by the less developed nations is how to integrate harmoniously the pursuit of modern science and technology with the social and cultural heritage that provide them with a sense of identity."

For his own country, Sagasti demands that a percentage of money generated from the privatisation of state assets and from the exploitation of natural resources by foreign multinationals, be ploughed into creating a science base.

Sagasti calls on the world's scientists not to ignore their responsibilities as part of an e+lite group, but to help build bridges across the knowledge divide.

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