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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2002

Science and Technology for Sustainable Development

Dr. Norman Neureiter, Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State
U.S. briefing to NGOs at World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) PrepCom II
New York, New York
February 5, 2002


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to join Mr. Margolis in welcoming you today. I hope that this briefing can stimulate useful discussion as we prepare for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and new directions for cooperation beyond Johannesburg.

I came to New York to speak with you about science and technology as essential elements of the inordinately complex process of sustainable development.

I am honored to be here in my capacity as Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Science and technology considerations are involved in virtually all facets of our 21st century foreign policy -- whether controlling proliferation of arms, protection against threats to our critical infrastructure, addressing HIV/AIDs and other global infectious diseases, protecting biodiversity, or mitigating transboundary air pollution -- science is indispensable to understanding the problems, and technology is central to their remediation.

Sustainable Development

As you all know, the reconciliation of society’s development goals with the planet’s environmental limits over the long term is the foundation of the idea known as sustainable development. This idea emerged in the early 1980s from scientific perspectives about the interdependence of society and environment, and has since evolved along with the significant advances in our understanding of this interdependence.

However, since the 1992 Rio Conference the political impetus that carried the ideas of sustainable development so far and so quickly has increasingly seemed to distance itself from its scientific and technological base. Some of us in the government are now attempting to restore this base by mobilizing our technical agencies to address science, technology and sustainable development in a more systematic manner, and to institutionalize this paradigm into our long-term planning and program development.

My colleague, John Boright, will tell you later about a similar role of the world Academies in this process.

Many of you NGOs are, in fact, already operating on principles, on policies, and missions that have their essential bases in S&T. But today, we want to persuade you of the commitment of the United States Government to science and technology as one essential piece of the development process. And we want to appeal to you in the NGO community to join us in this public/private effort to move science and technology prominently into the agenda of the WSSD in Johannesburg, and beyond.

The Role of S&T in Sustainable Development

What is development, generally speaking? It is trying to get a country in a position to full participate in a globalizing world. That world, however, is essentially driven by technology. Energy, medicine and health, clean air and water, transportation, sanitation, management use and conservation of natural resources -- all are based ultimately in science and technology. So it is obvious that to be a part of that world, there must be science and technology elements in the development process.

I have been in my present job now for about 19 months, rejoining a government I left 20 years ago to work for Texas Instruments. But I came back in this position because I believe so passionately in the role that science and technology must play in foreign policy and, also that science and technology (or, S&T) are vital parameters in the complex equation that somehow has to equal sustainable development.

I still remember when I came to work in the White House Office of Science and Technology 33 years ago. There was a huge stack of books on my shelves – all the papers from the first big UN Conference on Science and Technology Applied to Development. I was always concerned that such noble efforts might just collect dust. I almost never opened them. But I am convinced that over these last three decades – and thanks in great part to strong and continuous efforts by organizations like your own – that we have actually learned a lot about what works and what does not work in the area of development. Science and technology have contributed greatly to our global success stories.

But let me take a minute to give my sense of what science is, and what it is not. Science is not just the data and ‘facts’ themselves. Rather, science is the process of discovery and the relentless pursuit of increased understanding through experimentation, data taking, conjecture and modeling, and critical testing of the boundaries of knowledge – always seeking the true facts. The rigor of the process, which is designed to ferret out the untrue and extraneous, involves critical thinking and challenging and testing of assumptions, using techniques such as publication and meetings which open work to the scrutiny and criticism of peers world-wide.

This is worth mentioning because science-based decision-making is a similar process – it uses the best available information upon which to base an action, which, hopefully, will be in the right direction. But like the science process, science-based decisions and the resulting actions should to be continually reassessed based upon new information, which can be obtained by monitoring key indicators.

I’ll never forget the words of the late Chairman of our company. He said the only thing worse than not having a plan is to believe in it. One must constantly reassess the results and modify the plan accordingly.

Of course, science and technology alone are obviously not the sole answers -- and will never be. While complete solutions to urgent problems of health, agriculture, food security, and clean water, for example, might not always be available or practicable, development decisions made in the absence or ignorance of the best S&T advice available will be highly risky affairs.

Sir Solly Zuckerman, the noted British physiologist and science advisor to two Prime Ministers, made this observation at the commencement address at Caltech in 1959:

"What we most need to learn is that in the major scientific matters which now affect human destiny, one cannot safely take decisions for today unless we realize that those same decisions determine the future. This realization may not lead to the right decisions; but it might help to obviate some of the worse (ones)."

U.S. Position for WSSD

Looking at the total U.S. position for the Summit, we believe that sustainable development is only possible if national commitments are made to build indigenous capacity for political good governance, open markets and free trade, and scientific and technological institutions. As engines of modern societies, science and technology are fundamental to the intelligent management and use of natural resources, environmental stewardship and economic development -- in short -- they are essential to sustainability.

Complementing the tenets of good governance, and transparency and enforcement of environmental agreements, the U.S. believes that science and technology and science-based decision-making must be central elements of the WSSD in Johannesburg. Ready availability of sound scientific information and advice is essential for developing country decision-makers to make informed science-based choices that shape national development strategies. Expanding access to science and technology information and capacity into developing regions will similarly accelerate their paths to development and prosperity in an environmentally sustainable manner. The United States strongly supports this approach.

Advances in agricultural biotechnology will be essential to raising developing world food productivity in order to feed burgeoning populations. Application of new technologies will be crucial to providing adequate and safe water supplies. Clean and renewable energy technologies will be needed to ensure sufficient and sustainable energy supplies for the developing world. Similarly, advances in biomedical science and technologies are critical if developing countries are to overcome the daunting public health challenges posed by infectious disease. These are just a small sampling of areas in which science and technology advances can have enormous beneficial leverage.

Some advances, such as wireless communications and fuel cells for transportation or distributed power -- can leapfrog older technologies -- and provide enormous advances at a fraction of what spreading the older technologies might have cost.

I remember years ago speculating that there could never be enough copper in the world to lay wires to the house of every citizen of India or China. Now one hardly needs copper -- with wireless telephony and fiber optic cables.

Elements of an Effective S&T Strategy

A sufficient base for science and technology for sustainable development must be assembled from a variety of key activities. We believe that an overall strategy to this end entails 5 specific elements where science and technology are intimately involved. These are:

  • Building Capacity for Sustainable Development
  • Investing in Training the Next Generation
  • Ensuring Access to Information
  • Strengthening the Scientific Basis of Decision-Making
  • Informing the Public

Let me elaborate briefly on each of these elements.

Building Capacity for Sustainable Development. This includes investment in the human and institutional resources to understand the challenges to sustainable development. National research capacity is needed to address national problems, to cooperate with the technical world outside their countries, and to participate confidently in international negotiations on global issues that impinge on development. Developing countries must also invest in science and technology capacity building in their own citizens, to increase their self-reliance in charting their own development path. The international community and donor countries also have a responsibility to invest in these efforts. Global benefits arise from investments in shared generation of knowledge and dissemination. The international community can identify ways to strengthen key global programs, facilitate regional cooperation, and foster public-private partnerships.

Investing in training the next generation. This is an imperative for all countries. Education in mathematics, science and technology is crucial for the long term economic development of a nation, and for the future of its scientific enterprise, encompassing sectors such as industry, health, agriculture, civil infrastructure, and the researchers and technical workforce of the next generation. The private sector has an interest in training workers for the skills needed in particular industries. Companies also see benefit in helping to raise the level of technical education in the communities in which they are located. They need a dependable pool of qualified candidates for their workforce.

Ensuring access to information. Information can be made more readily accessible and convenient to all users. The advent of global information networks linked electronically to supplement commercial, academic, governmental and personal networks enables the widest possible access to information. Further progress is needed on standardization and protocols for data collection and reporting, in order to foster data sharing and comparability across geographical and temporal borders. Scientific approaches to capture relevant indicators and criteria of sustainable development should be developed. Emphasis on creating and sustaining scientific databases, and creating appropriate arrangements for sharing such data, will be the hallmark of this effort. Just last week there was a meeting on the digital divide here in New York. We must bridge the digital divide!

Strengthening the scientific basis of decision-making. Many research themes related to sustainable development are the focus of ongoing international research programs, with mechanisms established to communicate findings to decision makers. Science needs to be integrated into policy-making through establishment of regular channels for soliciting and receiving scientific advice. We need better techniques for presenting findings: we need a shared vocabulary, and we need a dialogue between policymakers and researchers regarding research gaps. Science must not make decisions -- but decisions that ignore the scientific facts will be very risky affairs.

Informing the public. One of the greatest challenges for sustainable development is the long time horizon of both the problems and the solutions. Governments and policymakers must support the communication of scientific findings to the public thereby enabling a dialogue. This is perhaps the essence of good governance. Investment in informal education of the public builds a populace that is scientifically more literate and environmentally aware. This will help ensure political viability for sustainable development as a guiding principle for the extended period of time needed for enlightened policies to bear fruit.

The United States is committed to continue working with the international science community, governments, foundations, voluntary organizations, and private sector towards this end.

But it is also essential to remember that even with great education and advice, it is essential to have a secure flow of financial resources in order to advance solutions. There must be an appropriate flow of investment that leads full circle to the importance of governance. And the trend here is not good with FDI down sharply for emerging economies since 1997.

In this regard I also want to pay a special compliment to you, the represented NGOs. I am privileged to be standing here before you. I have met only a few of you, but I admire deeply what you are doing; at times in government we are even envious of the financial resources that you command, and I admire the skill and dedication with which many of you ply your specific crafts.

I also want to emphasize the importance of public and private partnerships in addressing and solving many of these problems. Some of the recent activities we have undertaken have involved such partnerships, and can serve as useful examples for international cooperation. As you know, we submitted a Country Profile Report to the UN. Chapter 35 deals with S&T for sustainable development. It presents a series of examples of what the U.S. government is doing in various agencies relative to sustainable development.

S&T and Sustainability -- Examples

Agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture manages an "Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems," for a research, extension and education competitive grants program to address critical emerging agricultural issues, including future food production, food safety, environmental quality, natural resource management, and farm income. Key program areas are underway in agricultural genome research, food safety, and agro-biotechnology, for example. Priority funding is made to proposals that engage numerous States, academic and research institutions, and that integrate research, extension and education.

Forests. The USDA Forest Service sponsors many research programs for forest management practices, use and related developments in close coordination with other USG and State agencies. In addition, USDA grants are also directed toward highly qualified small businesses, and to women-owned and socially and economically disadvantaged small business firms that can demonstrate unique technological innovations.

Water and Earth Sciences. The U.S. Geological Survey is responsible for providing hydrological information for the assessment of U.S. water resources availability and quality, as well as prediction of natural or man-made stress. This entails coordination between the States, local governments and the private sector. USGS also maintains 2/3 of the 120 modern seismographic stations in the Global Seismographic Network, which provides high-quality data to address disaster management, hazards assessment, national security, and the structure and dynamics of the earth.

The U.S. National Science Foundation sponsors an Internet connection program for university students in equatorial Africa who are now able to access all the information on the Network.

Energy. The U.S. Agency for International Development has launched the "Energy Sector Policy Network Initiative" to address scientific, technological and policy impediments to increasing access to electricity service in developing countries. "Village Power," a public-private international partnership, complements the initiative by mobilizing bilateral, multilateral and regional development banks, together with the private sector and NGOs, to promote development on the ground. Partnerships are underway in Latin America, Africa, Asia, China and Russia with many projects including rural electrification for villages, schools, community centers and health care clinics, and serving pumping, desalinization and purification of water, cooking and transportation needs.

Land Use and Resource Planning. A new U.S. initiative is the Geographic Information for Sustainable Development (GISD) project to apply a new generation of earth observation data, state-of-the-art geographic information system (GIS) technologies, and field-confirmed geographic data and knowledge to ongoing projects in diverse areas within Africa. The GISD is being closely coordinated with UN organizations, other governments, NGOs and the private sector to provide developing nations with tools for science-based decision in support of sustainable development and land use practices. It represents yet another excellent example of the public/private partnerships so vital to development and assistance in the 21st century. I believe we have a few slides to illustrate the basic concept of the GISD. We will demonstrate this at the Johannesburg meeting.

Concluding Thoughts, Observations

Achieving sustainability in development demands new knowledge, which science and technology must provide. Research and innovation are essential to increasing our abilities to deal with the sustainable development challenge. We need to understand a phenomenon and its causes; assess impact, magnitude, time scale, and probability. We need to predict trends and the effects of taking specific actions. We need to develop and test solutions; predict outcomes and mitigate harm; and make informed policy decisions. The pursuit of technical knowledge is an ongoing process; the knowledge base must be constantly renewed and replenished. The biological and physical sciences and engineering must work closely with the social and behavioral sciences to speed the application of innovations and insights to the needs of society.

I am confident that advances in S&T can enable countries to increase the efficiency of resource use and raise living standards necessary for global prosperity and long-term sustainability. The United States is committed to continue working vigorously towards this goal with all the relevant actors in the process.

We feel that the United States has a special obligation to join and help guide the transition to sustainability because:

  • We have the most robust science and technology capacity in the world
  • We are a major consumer of global resources
  • Sustainable communities have not been fully realized across the U.S. landscape, thus we have a lot to learn as well as things to teach others.

In its excellent report from 1999, "Our Common Journey -- A Transition Toward Sustainability," the U.S. National Research Council concluded:

"There is no precedent for the ambitious enterprise of mobilizing science and technology to ensure a transition to sustainability. Carrying out this enterprise successfully will require collaborative efforts across many dimensions of science and society…(including) the international science community, governments, foundations, voluntary organizations, and the private sector working together through innovative knowledge-action collaboratives."

With that, I am pleased to introduce Dr. John Boright, Executive Director of the Office of International Affairs at the National Academies of Science. Following his presentation, John and I would be glad to answer any questions you might have and to welcome any further discussion. 

Released on February 5, 2002

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