15 January 2010
Secretary-General
SG/SM/12702

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Secretary-General, in Remarks to Colloquium of University Presidents,

 

Highlights Role of Technology in Meeting Global Challenges

 


Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks to the Global Colloquium of University Presidents on New Technologies for Meeting Global Challenges, at Yale University yesterday, 14 January:


It is a great pleasure to be with you today.  I thank everyone involved in making this get-together possible.  The United Nations really counts on your engagement and support, and so I am much encouraged by your presence and by this opportunity to exchange views on a subject of vital importance.


As you know, this meeting takes place under the deepening shadow of the tragedy in Haiti.  You have all seen the reports of the horrendous damaged and suffering caused by Tuesday’s earthquake.


We still don’t know the full extent of the casualties.  The UN itself has been badly hit ‑‑ our headquarters building collapsed and many UN staff members remain unaccounted for.


The UN has mobilized an emergency response team to help coordinate humanitarian relief efforts.  Our team in Haiti is regrouping.  We will spare no effort to help the people of Haiti in this hour of need.


I cannot help but think, given the confluence of events in Haiti and the subject of this colloquium, about our attempts to understand and control nature through science and technological innovation.  Time and time again, following a natural disaster like the earthquake in Haiti, we are reminded that we have technologies and knowledge that can reduce the impact of natural disasters and save lives.


We have technologies to build sturdier buildings and to build infrastructures that take into account possible fault lines.  We know a great deal about how to work with the natural landscape to ensure that urban settlements are more secure.


The problem is that so many parts of the world are not benefiting from this knowledge and these technologies.  Disaster risk reduction measures must not be a luxury that only some States can afford.  The tremendous mobilization of the humanitarian community in the last 48 hours gives us a glimpse of the power of some of the new communication technologies.


Around the world, crisis experts working in intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as in the private sector, are coordinating their efforts, sharing maps, satellite photographs, and up-to-date pictures and information from the ground via the Web.  Collaborative platforms have been put up on Facebook, and humanitarian workers are having minute-by-minute exchanges via tweets.  We are seeing a global response reach a whole new level.  This is the promise of technology.  This is what we have gathered here to discuss.


Throughout history, humankind has constantly looked to science and new technologies as the engine of progress.  Today we are witnessing remarkable developments in the life sciences, the physical sciences and information sciences.  They offer the promise of powerful tools to address the challenges that plague our world and affect human well-being.


The UN is the lead global institution dealing with many of these challenges.  We are on the front lines in the battle against climate change and disease, economic decline and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  We need to help our Member States, particularly those in the developing world, to harness new technologies and work with all to ensure that they are not abused.


We, ourselves, need to be leaders in using new technologies in innovative ways to magnify the impact of our work.  That is why I am here with you today.  You preside over institutions that are at the forefront of research and development around the world.  Your universities and colleges represent a global brain trust.


We at the United Nations want to work with you to use technological innovation in support of our aims of peace and stability, and to enhance all our lives, especially the lives of the poor, the malnourished, those lacking health care, those who are struggling to survive.  After all, what greater task is there for our greatest minds to grapple with?


In harnessing the power of technology to drive development, we face two concrete challenges:


First, scientific discovery and the benefits of innovation are heavily concentrated in the developed world.  Developing countries are held back by a lack of resources, market failures, policy distortions and the brain drain.  Often, those who are researching and developing new technologies tend to focus on the needs of the developed world.  If this state of affairs continues, it could widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  But if we address this issue, technology can help the world’s poorest to leapfrog various hurdles and sometimes even stages of development.


The second challenge we face is that no technology is risk-free.  While technology can drive development, it can also be used for destructive ends.  Technological development has opened the door to a host of new global threats.  Some of these are quite horrifying.  A dangerous virus could escape the confines of a high-security lab, or terrorists could steal nuclear materials from medical or energy facilities and turn them into weapons.  A synthetically produced organism could have an adverse impact on the environment or on health.


It is up to us to use science and technology responsibly.  It is clear that we must create an environment in which science and technological innovation can flourish, but with robust safeguards and oversight mechanisms, which protect both people and the environment from unacceptable risks.


The UN system has a long-standing interest and wide-ranging experience in these matters.  We have had some great successes; but we have also made some mistakes along the way.  Perhaps our most important lesson is that fostering science and technological innovation is complex and requires careful and sustained long-term investment.


When you build a well, you can draw water immediately.  When you build a house, you have shelter right away.  When you plant a field, you can feed people within a few months.  But when you invest in creating an environment for technological innovation, the results may not be seen for months, or even years. It may take several decades.  Yet the impact of this investment will far exceed the well, the house, or the field.  The ripple effects can last for generations to come.


Let me share with youfive lessons from our experience at the UN.


First, developing countries need to invest in building skills, knowledge, expertise and experience in order to acquire and adapt technology from the more technologically advanced countries.  Forty or fifty years ago, many people thought that simply transferring technologies from industrialized to developing countries would close the technology gap.  Now we know that technologies developed in industrialized countries may not be suitable for use in other environments.  They may require a particular type of infrastructure to operate.  They may need specialized parts or knowledge to mend when they break down.


More broadly, we have found that the direct transfer of science and technology ‑‑ in the form of new products and processes ‑‑ is not enough to jump-start local innovation.  We now understand that innovative capacity must be built in different ways.  Many developing countries can make important progress through simply adapting existing technologies.


I recently held a meeting with biotechnology leaders from around the world to discuss both the potential and the risks associated with emerging technologies.  One company, Biocon India, had problems with using existing fermentation technology effectively and safely in the local environment.  Instead, it developed a new fermentation process and used it as a platform to develop a range of new products.  The company transformed itself from technological follower to leader, and from a manufacturer of industrial enzymes to an innovator in biopharmaceuticals.


But technology adaptation is not free.  It requires investment in acquiring technological knowledge and skills, and a constant monitoring of emerging technologies.  This is the case for individual companies like Biocon, just as it is for national Governments and the scientific community as a whole.


The second and related lesson is that this kind of development won’t happen on its own.  It requires well-thought-out national strategies involving Government, the education system, business and civil society.  Ideally, such strategies should integrate science, technology and innovation into industrial, agricultural, health, educational, commercial and foreign policies.


Research and development must be fostered, and academic programmes must be shaped to encourage the development of a nucleus of trained scientists and technological entrepreneurs.  At the same time, regulatory capacity must be built to manage risks effectively and encourage investment in safer, cleaner applications of technology.  Strong public-private partnerships need to be forged in all these areas.


Our response to the global food crisis was an example of such strategies in action.  The causes of the crisis included poor policy planning and the underused potential of agricultural innovation and research.  The solutions were clearly going to be complex.  I convened a high-level task force to find a comprehensive approach to combating volatile food prices.


The ideas we are pursuing include investment in research and development ‑‑ not just into high-yielding and pest-resistant crops, but into harvesting, processing and even marketing agricultural products.  We are creating partnerships between Government, civil society and the private sector.  We are helping countries to invest in education, research, science and technologies for food security.


A third lesson concerns intellectual property rights.  These have often been a sticking point in international negotiations on knowledge-sharing and technology transfer.  We now need to move towards more imaginative approaches that increase the access of the developing world to new technologies.


Intellectual property rights can drive innovation and facilitate the diffusion of technology.  A lack of access to new technologies can be deadly.  This means we must strike a careful balance between providing incentives for innovation and providing access to necessary technologies.


Last year, when the H1N1 influenza broke out, one of the big problems developing countries faced was that they simply did not have access to the vaccine or to any way of developing it themselves.  Ninety-five countries faced this dilemma.  Concern about proprietary knowledge was one reason for this situation.  The UN was able to work directly with Governments and key pharmaceutical companies to address the obstacles.


Key pharmaceutical companies and UN Member States agreed to donate approximately 180 million doses of the flu vaccine and related products.  They also committed resources to funding vaccine deployment in developing countries.  In this case, we were able to find an extraordinary ad hoc solution to a pressing global threat.  But we can’t rely on such success every time.  The underlying structural issues must be addressed systematically.


The fourth lesson is that the potential benefits and risks of new technologies and innovation are two sides of the same coin.  Focusing exclusively on one or the other will not lead to progress.  New technology is, almost by definition, an unpredictable area.  It is extremely difficult to estimate, qualify and quantify the risks associated with it.  And as it becomes easier and cheaper to gain access to very advanced technologies, there are understandable concerns over security.


Biotechnology and cyberspace are two areas of research where efforts to control the risks nationally and internationally are not keeping pace with innovation.  This needs immediate attention.  However, tightening regulations or introducing new ones could stifle innovation and exacerbate existing inequalities.


We need to be sure that our policies and institutions are structured to deal with new technologies in a holistic way that acknowledges and promotes benefits, but also takes steps to mitigate risks.  An example of such a regulatory framework is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  It works to prevent nuclear proliferation while recognizing that every State has the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.


Fifth and finally, we have learned that the development and application of new technologies is a global challenge that requires a global solution.  We need to develop international norms, standards and policies to help us win global trust and produce effective responses.  Climate change illustrates this point perfectly.  We all know that no one country can deal with climate change on its own.  Without collective investment in new technologies, and an international commitment to sharing and applying emerging technologies, we will not be able to make the progress we so desperately need.


As we look to the future, I believe there is an urgent need for global platforms for cooperation and standard-setting in science and technology.  There are several institutional arrangements that could serve as models.  The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an open body which provides the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change.  Through an extensive and inclusive process, the IPCC assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic research worldwide.


Where there are differing views in the scientific community, the IPCC’s reports reflect this.  Its work is widely seen as policy-relevant yet policy-neutral ‑‑ and never policy-prescriptive.


The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) presents a different model.  It finances projects that use technologies that are not currently available in the developing countries which host the projects.


The CDM is what we call a bottom-up process, which helps to make it relevant to the marketplace, and to ensure that it does not have an adverse environmental impact.  It also features a public comment and review component.  Our experts believe the CDM is particularly suited to cases in which there is an incentive for the private sector to invest in new technologies or increase the rate and spread of their adoption.


Others point to the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, which works on collaborative research.  Still others propose technology innovation centres, which would provide a focus for exchanging ideas and building local and regional capacity.  A combination of all these approaches is probably called for.  But we must not delay any longer.


Science and new technologies are only as valuable and as useful as we allow them to be.  We must be prudent and even-handed in how we foster their development.  And we must realize that, in a globalized world, technological development is a global venture.  It requires a collective and coordinated effort by Government, the private sector, scientists and civil society.


International organizations and international regimes can help to bring all the right pieces of the puzzle together.  We must seek new and improved ways to do so.  As university presidents and faculty serving in the world’s most prominent institutions of higher learning, you are uniquely placed ‑‑ not only to survey the changing technological landscape, but to play an important role in shaping its future.


I look forward to hearing your recommendations on how to broaden the base of scientific research, and how to promote a more equitable distribution of the benefits of technology.  Similarly, I hope you will share with us your views on how best we can set global standards and help to reduce risks.


The United Nations attaches the greatest importance to your work, and we look forward to developing our partnerships further still.


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For information media • not an official record