Developing countries face a form of "scientific apartheid" as the richer nations widen the knowledge gap, a senior World Bank official warned last week.
Ismail Serageldin, a vice-president of the bank, warned of rising inequities between countries, with enrolment in tertiary education increasing faster in the developed world between 1980 and 1996 than in the less developed world.
Only a handful of countries, such as the Republic of Korea, had come close to closing the gap with high-income nations, while the rest of the world had not achieved any significant increase, he said.
Other main exceptions, he told the general conference of the International Association of Universities meeting in South Africa, were Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the proportion of students enrolling in technical subjects exceeded that in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
Mr Serageldin pointed to the disparity in the "ownership" of technology - IBM was granted more patents in the United States in 1999 than total patents granted in 134 other countries.
Mahdi Elmandjra, professor of international relations at Moroccan University Mohammed V, said that 80 per cent of global research and development spending is in the developed world, which represents less than 20 per cent of the world's population.
"If research in advanced fields of science and technology is included, the figure goes up to 95 per cent, four-fifths of which is unfortunately spent on military research," he said.
Kader Asmal, South Africa's education minister, attacked the tendency for knowledge to be "commodified" and called for the World Trade Organisation to resist this tendency.
"We all know there are pressures on universities to become more entrepreneurial and responsive to societal needs," he said. "These are desirable attributes. But to ask universities to be more business-like is not the same as asking them to become like businesses. Knowledge that is commodified loses its critical edge. Universities must defend a history of intellectual emancipation that spans seven centuries rather than surrender to market exigencies."
The conference, attended by representatives from 80 countries, presented the widening knowledge gap against an economic inequity that sees the assets of the world's three richest people exceeding the combined gross domestic product of the world's 48 poorest countries, while the 15 richest people's assets are greater than the gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa.