This text is meant to be published in the communications of the Swiss Physical Society in June 2018, it is derived from notes prepared to give a key note address to the round table "science and policy making" at the XIV rencontre du Viet Nam in May 2018.


Science for Development[1]

Thierry J.-L. Courvoisier

University of Geneva

President EASAC, the European Academies Science Advisory Council


There is no development without science, whatever the meaning of “development “ may be. All what mankind has ever built or constructed rests ultimately on the knowledge we have acquired by observing nature –which may also be a way of responding to the ever recurrent question of the relevance of fundamental science for our societies-. This is true for the measurement of time, as it is for biotechnology or semi-conductors, two of the many tools essential in development of human communities worldwide.

But science, like any tool, is used for development, but also for destruction, a triviality that needed no extra emphasis in Viet Nam, where science for development was discussed May 9-11 2018 at the XIVth Rencontres du Viet Nam[i].

Science serves interests of all sorts, some for the benefit of the concerned human communities; we call this development. But science also serves the commercial,   industrial, or financial interests of actors very far from the communities involved. These may be large multi national companies looking for new markets for products, which may or may not be adapted to local conditions. Geopolitical interests of far away nations also influence sometimes the evolution of communities in a way that may not necessarily be to their benefit. The Viet Nam war being a striking example, but by no means the only or last one.

Using science for development therefore requires knowledge, independence and judgement.

Knowledge first. A large number of decisions that need be taken now everywhere and at all levels, be they local, national, continental or global, require a wide body of knowledge. This is true of agriculture and the use of pesticides or genetically modified organisms, but also of mobility and CO2 emission or adaptation to climate change to name but few examples. It is worth remembering here that climate change is in fine a problem of solar radiation transfer in the Earth’s atmosphere, continents and oceans that needs be solved to better than 0.05% to understand the Earth energy intake.

Nowadays, the development of local communities must take global issues into considerations. Use of fossil energies at a per capita rate similar to that implied by modern western ways of life everywhere on Earth would indeed be a tremendous problem. Development will therefore have to follow a different path in regions of the world developing now than it typically did in Europe over the last centuries. This is understandably the cause of very significant tensions between different parts of the world.

The knowledge that needs be considered in all aspects of development is not limited to natural sciences, it also encompasses humanities, social and economic sciences. Once the physical, chemical and biological components of a problem are understood, the human, social and political implications of the proposed actions must be considered in order for them to be accepted and implemented, or modified and adapted.

Independence then. Bringing science in society and policy always requires, but probably even more explicitly when dealing with development issues, that the scientists active in informing the decision making processes be free of political interests in the narrow meaning of the word, of industrial, financial or commercial ties be they local or global, or of religious biases. This may be relatively easy to assess as far as economic interests are concerned, it is not when cultural values are concerned. Science is indeed universal in that observations, experiments and the deduced knowledge are valid for all. The scientific questioning, however, depends on the epoch and the culture of the scientists. One does not address the same questions in the same way when siting in a XXth century western lab or in an oriental surrounding. Following generations look at the world in different ways. These aspects of culture intimate to each of us colour our thinking and our action, the present text included. To mitigate the biases they introduce in science advice, groups including scientists of diverse origin and backgrounds should be formed in order to formulate advice.

With companies eager to access developing markets, or nations pushing geopolitical agendas, both sometimes showing little if any interest for local development issues, think for example of tobacco industries advertising for cigarettes in cultures where smoking is not presently a cultural element, independence of the knowledge brokers is of utmost importance. Science academies are often, rightly I think, considered to be among the knowledge actors most devoid of vested interests. This is the reason for which the interface between science and policy is often entrusted to them, be they national academies or networks like EASAC, the European Academies Science Advisory Council active in supplying scientific advice to the European Union, or its equivalent in Asia, Africa or the Americas.

Judgement finally. What is development? What is sustainable development? What may be the consequences on society or nature of development steps? What is well being for an individual? For a population? All these and more are questions that must be dealt with by society as a whole, including scientists. And answering them must be underpinned by knowledge, be it from natural sciences or from humanities and social sciences.

When discussing development on the planet, be it in a local frame or globally in the coming decade or so, the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs[ii], put together by the United Nations form a frame that is becoming integrated in a number of national policies, including in Switzerland, as well as in the strategic thinking of a number of organisations and associations world wide, also in that of the Swiss academies. The seventeen goals and their 269 targets allow a wide variety of actors to orient their policy making. They also form a frame that helps define the areas where scientific work must be initiated or pursued in order to achieve the goals and targets and/or to measure progress.

Not only are the sustainable goals an interesting and fruitful tool when discussing development issues everywhere on Earth, but the financial burden of solving the most pressing issues of the planet, namely to tame climate change, is said to be of the order of 1-2% of the world GDP[iii]. One would therefore think that with at least one tool likely to bear fruits and a problem for which the solution might cost only a tiny fraction of the world economy, humanity should be on the verge of making very concrete and major progress towards making the planet hospitable for the whole humanity.

But somehow it does not work. CO2 emissions continue to increase worldwide[iv], some economies are investing massively in coal plants to produce electricity and worldwide discussions on incentives to decrease carbon and other green house gases emission hinge on arguments related to “productivity” and economic competition between nations, also in Switzerland. Thus the short term “growth” agenda of our economies seems to systematically win over the long term harmonious development goal that is essential to preserve an environment in which humanity can live harmoniously.

Short of a major change in the objectives of our society and in the governance that we give ourselves it seems that it will be difficult to modify this state of affairs. To ever produce more in order to sustain “growth” in a finite environment cannot function. We must therefore look at ways that satisfy human well being in terms other than per capita productivity increase to give a meaning to our lives. This probably implies looking at professional careers differently, also in the academic environment where productivity, in terms of number of publications, is still the preferred benchmark.


[1]Derived from the notes of a talk I gave at the XIV Rencontres du Viet Nam in Quy Nhon May 10 2018.




[iii]See for example McCollum, Krey, Rihai, Kolp, Grubler Makowski and Nakicenovic, Climatic Change 119, 479, 2013 for a discussion of cost and benefit of climate policies.

[iv] see for example the statistics of the International Energy Agency,