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Education for the 21st Century Knowledge Society

Nina V. Fedoroff, Ph.D., Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID
Remarks to the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, Eleventh Session
Geneva, Switzerland
May 26, 2008

Mr. Chairman, Secretary General Supachai, distinguished colleagues.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Commission during this opening ceremony. I am delighted to share some thoughts about the role of this Commission in addressing our common global development challenges with science and technology.

At the Tenth Session last year, the Commission began a new multi-year program to address an augmented, dual mandate. The first component of the mandate is to reinvigorate the original CSTD mission of promoting science and technology for development. And the second is to assess the implementation of action items emerging from the World Summit on the Information Society at both regional and global levels.

The United States also rejoined the Commission after a long absence. We expressed our enthusiasm about the Commission’s dual mandate and particularly about the unprecedented opportunities for using information and communication technologies to enable science and technology to contribute to development. We are pleased that the Commission has chosen to focus on policies to assure ICT access, support infrastructure and create an enabling environment, and to promote the use of science and technology for innovation and capacity building.

Science and technology are increasingly recognized as the drivers of economic growth today, and they will have an increasing role in the future. Nations will prosper in proportion to their scientific, technological and engineering capacity, in turn a function of their strength in both education and research.

Over the past two decades, the Internet has revolutionized humanity’s ability to make use of its accumulated knowledge and to build new knowledge by bringing the power of many minds together. Just a few short decades ago, communication among scientists depended on paper journals which, in many countries, could be found only in central repositories, the libraries of universities and institutes – and had to be shared by many readers.

Today, tens of thousands of journals can be accessed through the Internet. In many developed countries, both professors and students – even students in grade school – have access to humanity’s wealth of knowledge from the comfort of their offices and laboratories – and homes. The very idea of a library as a repository of information has changed for many people from a repository of books and journals and newspapers – to a means of accessing information electronically.

Collaborating – whether in research or business or any other domain – once meant communicating by telephone and mail and occasionally traveling to a distant site. Today we have the ability to interact with people halfway around the world – in real time and face-to-face.

This capacity has enormous implications for education at all levels – worldwide. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare project has made all the university’s courses available free to anyone in the world with Internet access. The SuperCourse project at the University of Pittsburgh provides access to the PowerPoint presentations of some 55,000 lectures of outstanding scientists – free. And professors can teach students on the other side of the world using digital video conferencing.

Medicine and medical education are also being revolutionized by the Internet. Basic health information is more freely available than ever before, training can be done at a distance and telemedicine allows far away experts not only to diagnose, but even to perform surgery.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has attracted a great deal of attention with the publication of his book, titled “The World is Flat”. By a flat world, he means that the Internet revolution and globalization have put all peoples of the world on an equal economic footing. And yet, despite the extraordinary increase in our ability to communicate and access information and despite the spread of cell phones over the face of the Earth, we all know that the world is still far from flat, even metaphorically.

The ability to jumpstart education and to collaborate using video conferencing and interactive software depends not just on the Internet, but on broadband access – the ability to receive information at much higher rates than can be supported by conventional telephone technology.

For the non-technical members of the audience, traditional telephones are “circuit-switched.” When you dial a number, your circuit remains open as long as you talk. This is still true for most voice traffic on mobile phones. The Internet is different. It is “packet-switched.” That is, the information is bundled into separate “packets,” with each one containing the address that tells where it should go. Each packet gets to its final destination, but not necessarily all by the same route. Broadband communications are packet switched, like the Internet. Indeed, telecommunications and computer communications are converging.

Moreover, broadband communications can be accessed wirelessly. Signals fed to a “hub” through fiber or by satellite are broadcast from towers or local hubs, such as those in Internet cafes, hotels, and airports. No one knows exactly which technologies will be the best for broadband in the long run. But no matter which technology is chosen, there must be a way for signals to reach the hub before they are delivered “the last mile.” Hubs are usually fed by fiber optics, cable, or satellite. Cell phone towers are designed for minimal bandwidth. The broadband-enabling technology remains expensive and not widely available.

Today, we have a global crisis in education. We have no shortage of people. What we are short of – everywhere – is people with the sufficient technical training and education to support the increasingly science- and technology-dependent societies of the 21st century.

These are the people who design, develop and maintain society’s infrastructure: its roads, its agriculture, its schools, its clinics, its power and telecommunications networks. And even more important, perhaps, they are the professors and researchers who generate and propagate the knowledge, and even more importantly perhaps, the science and the technology, that are essential in every aspect of life and that are the driving force of today’s successful economies.

For many years, talented students have traveled from less-developed to more-developed countries to fulfill their educational aspirations. But herein lies a paradox: sending its best students to be educated in more developed countries often exacerbates a country’s problems because the education itself – be it a teacher’s certificate, a nursing degree, or a Ph.D. – makes it easier to find employment and often a more prosperous life in a developed country. So this “brain drain” has robbed – and is continuing to rob – many countries of their educated people.

We hear increasing talk of “brain circulation” rather than “brain drain.” The notion is that educated citizens of the world of tomorrow will spend time in their lives both at home and in many other countries, according to their interests and opportunities. This hopeful vision is predicated on the realization of Friedman's flat world: the global equalization of educational and economic opportunities.

I believe that the colleges, universities and research institutes of every country play a central role in addressing society’s educational needs, contributing to creating knowledge, and accelerate economic development. In this context, interactions between the academic sectors of developed and developing nations constitutes a markedly underused resource.

A month ago, at the end of April, U. S. Secretaries of State Rice and of Education Spellings, together with USAID Administrator Fore, convened a conference of university presidents to discuss innovative approaches to interactions among universities worldwide. It brought together more than 200 presidents of premier universities from around the world, as well as representatives of many companies, among them Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and Cisco, all involved in creating the extraordinary contemporary hardware and software that can be used to bring together professors, students and researchers from different countries on different continents.

Discussions ranged from the hardware and software that facilitate interactive learning and research at a distance to innovative university-based programs and industry-academic collaborations that combine information access, science, engineering and local resources to build national and international businesses in less developed countries. But whether it is teaching, collaboration, or simply access to data, it is evident that broadband access is a must – everywhere.

In April of 2006, broadband was available in 166 countries – twice as many as four years earlier. This includes low-income countries like Ghana and Rwanda. One reason for this rapid expansion is rapidly decreasing prices. Broadband tariffs were reduced by 40% between 2004 and 2006. A continuation of this development could make broadband affordable for major parts of the population in developing countries (ITU, 2006). 50% of Beijing’s population is connected to the Internet, and of these, 64% use broadband connections.

Broadband gives nations a significant economic advantage. Countries that are key destinations for business investment today, including India, Malaysia and the Philippines, have been active in developing national broadband deployment plans. India is in the process of connecting all of its universities in a single network for data sharing and collaboration – part of its effort to transform itself into a knowledge society.

In order to capitalize on the advantages of broadband access, countries need to develop broadband infrastructure deployment plans and advance policies to implement them. There are barriers: political, educational and financial. This brings me to the observation that this Commission can facilitate discussions to help countries shape the kinds of policies that will support and promote broadband access as a prerequisite for making best use of the Internet and contemporary interactive technologies for education, research and economic development, much as they are doing with, for example, the Panel on broadband on Tuesday. The Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy Reviews offered by UNCTAD could also play an important role here.

Bringing together government officials, donor organizations, telecommunications providers, local businesses, community organizations and academia is important in both developing and implementing policies. Regional collaborations can also be advantageous. With its many stakeholders, this Commission has an opportunity to bring together the actors who can make a difference.

It is essential for governments to work with providers to develop mechanisms to assure affordable access to schools, colleges, universities and research institutes, and institutions that provide health care, as well as libraries. And it isn’t enough just to install systems, it is essential to train people to maintain them. Cisco Systems has developed academies around the world, a surprisingly large fraction of whose graduates start their own businesses. Universities, however, need to build expertise in computer science and information systems, as well.

Governments need to ensure a pro-competitive policy and regulatory framework to encourage private sector investment in broadband infrastructure. And this framework should be technology-neutral. In addition, increased spectrum allocation for advanced wireless services would help expand broadband access.

Another useful discussion is how to educate consumers in business, industry, and academia in order to build markets that will bring down prices.

In conclusion, through its ability to facilitate the sharing of information, success stories, analysis and best practices, the CSTD has a major role to play in helping governments to develop the expertise to create and implement policies and incentives that will promote and support the development of broadband infrastructure. As well, it can contribute in assuring that educational and research organizations have the access that they need, and to educating citizens in the value of participating in the global knowledge society of today and tomorrow.

Thank you for your attention.

Released on June 5, 2008

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