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Midwife for information

By Ashok Khosla

Science has a long history of disagreement, debate and disavowal of premature theories. It
is understandable that few scientists consider it a responsible act to give advice based on
insufficient evidence, theoretical or empirical. Nevertheless, they are increasingly called
upon to do so. That the scientist has a responsibility to take a more active role in the
decision making process must now go without question. We now need to develop the
institutions and techniques to enable scientists to take active part in decision making without
jeopardising the reputation of the scientific enterprise as a whole, or their individual or
collective standing within it.

Many of the issues of sustainability arise from the side effects of the extraordinary
contributions which science itself has made to development, and it is only science that can
address these issues satisfactorily. The environmental phenomena and resource linkages
which constrain further development can also only be dealt with by a deeper understanding
of natural processes. As a well informed citizen, the scientist can play a special role in the
development decision making process. As a well informed citizen, the scientist can play a
special role in the development decision making process, to give early warning of emerging
problems, to provide information and analytical tools, and in other ways to make a greater
contribution as a strong influencer, if not maker, of policies.

In recognition of this special role, both policy makers and scientists have now to redefine
their relationships with each other. It is for the scientific community to develop institutional
mechanisms by which scientists can provide, either on their own initiative or on request,
advice based on consensus and the best information available even in the absence of
unanimity and certainty. To do so, the scientist will have to become much more responsive
than before to the actual problems of society and the environment, and less afraid of doing
cross-disciplinary work. In particular, the scientist will have to develop wholly new techniques
to communicate, both with fellow scientists in other specialisations and with non-technical
people.
The policy maker, on the other hand, is, or should be, a non-specialist, capable of sorting
various scientific, economic and other inputs in a manner that is consistent with social values
and goals. He or she will, therefore, have to establish the means by which outstanding
scientists are encouraged to investigate phenomena of relevance to the problems of
sustainable development, and to take an active part in the making of policy. The means to do
this include not only the funding of research programmes, but also the building up of
adequate research infrastructure, remuneration scales, and other incentives for scientists to
take a more active part in the design of development strategies.

The Independent Sector, which includes the thousands of NGOs in our country, constitute a
vast reservoir of concern, knowledge and wisdom on matters relating to development. To
ensure the fullest possible participation of people in the decision making process, deep
changes are needed in most societies to permit them to have access to relevant information.
Outdated concepts of intellectual property and “the public good” often stand in the way of an
independent sector which, if well-informed, could contribute greatly to the making of rational
development decisions.

Because of the multi-disciplinary requirements of decision making aimed at sustainable


development, it is now becoming essential that existing information systems be inter-
connected in a manner which facilitates the delivery of the information needed in the form
and format which can directly assist planners and decision makers in their work. In general
terms, what is called for is an improvement of “top down” flows of information and analytical
techniques from national bodies for the purpose of improving “bottom up” capabilities for
local planning which encourages public participation. Universities, non-governmental and
voluntary organisations and other research action oriented agencies can play an important
role in this effort.

The Development Alternatives Information Network (DAINET) has been established to


facilitate this process.