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Timeline Events / UN Vienna Conference on S&T for Development

The United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD) held in Vienna involved years of preparation, regional meetings and significant participation by NGOs, and resulted in several new commitments and institutions. The conference recognised the complexity of directing science and technology toward development goals, and followed growing tensions between the G77 and Group B on negotiating terms of trade, technology transfer, and the broader efforts toward a ‘New International Economic Order’ – highlighting concerns of equity in international relations. 

At Vienna, the primary focus was on building endogenous scientific and technical capacities and on securing the financial resources for doing so. The resulting Vienna Programme of Action on Science and Technology for Development emphasised three focus areas: 1) strengthening science and technological capabilities of developing countries; 2) restructuring international relations in technology transfer; and 3) strengthening the role of the UN system in promoting new forms of technological cooperation and increasing relevant financial resources. 

As a result of the conference, the UN General Assembly established a new Intergovernmental Committee on Science and Technology for Development, open to all states, to draw up policy guidelines, monitor activities within the UN, promote implementation of the Vienna Programme, identify priorities, and mobilize resources.  This institution was complemented by a new formulation of the Advisory Committee (ACSTD) and a new Inter Agency Task Force – together deemed the ‘Vienna institutions’.  Though a fund was established, the actual contributions by member states never even nearly approached the original commitments.

“Throughout the 1970s, developing countries, particularly the least developed countries, called for better access to the world’s stock of science and technology. In response to these calls and growing disagreements between ‘North’ and ‘South’ over such matters, the General Assembly took up in 1976 the proposal by ECOSOC and its Committee on Science and Technology for Development that a second global conference on science and technology be held.” (UN, 1997) This conference involved several years of substantive preparations, regional review meetings and the participation of a large number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Various bodies of the UN system also participated in preparations for UNCSTD, including UNCTAD and its Committee on Transfer of Technology (established in 1974). Each Member State provided a national paper on the status of science and technology, which served to provide “an unprecedented ‘package’ of information on the state and diffusion of science and technology throughout the world.” (UN, 1997)

In view of the growing science and technology and economic gaps between developed and developing countries, the techno-optimism of the 1950s and early 1960s had worn thin. At Vienna, participants recognised that the technical focus of the 1963 Geneva conference had not effected significant change in S&T capacity building, and that there was a “world-wide pattern of failed technology transfer projects”. (UN, 1997) While acknowledging that considerable learning had been achieved since 1963 regarding the application of science and technology to development, the Vienna conference was largely framed in terms of equitable access to the world’s technology. There was a growing “awareness that issues of international science policy related to economic wealth and access to know-how and technologies.” (UN, 1997)

“This conference differed from the 1963 conference in that it was an intergovernmental conference which passed resolutions [whereas the Geneva conference was more of a ‘science fair’].” (Oldham, forthcoming)  “The focus of the conference was political rather than technical and it put science and technology in the context of ‘North-South’ relations. It was the last of the United Nations ‘mega conferences’ of the 1970s addressing issues relating to a new international economic order.” (UN, 1997) Though technology transfer issues were addressed at the conference, most attention was devoted to the building of endogenous scientific and technical capabilities in the developing countries, highlighting a need for concerted governmental action at international and national levels, especially a push for an international Fund.

The focus on endogenous capabilities was also evident of a shifting attitude in the developing countries, influenced significantly by the role of Francisco Sagasti who was seconded to the Secretariat for the 1979 conference after his role as coordinator to the Science and Technology Policy Instruments Project.  Sagasti helped orchestrate the G77’s position on science and technology, influenced by lessons garnered from the STPI project. (Oldham, pers. comm.)

“It was felt by the developing countries themselves that there was enough known about the types of institutions and capabilities that were required. What was now required was the funding to establish the institutions and train the staff. [Note this was nearly a decade after the Sussex Group had highlighted the importance of scientific and technical capacities in their report to the UN.] The negotiations at this conference centred on the need for a new science and technology fund, and how big this fund should be. Those opposed to creating a new fund argued that the United Nations Development Programme already constituted such a fund and if developing country governments gave priority to science and technology then the UNDP could fund the projects. At the end of the conference the Fund was established [to be supported through voluntary contributions by the industrialized countries], but few countries ever honoured their pledges to contribute. Although the Vienna Conference highlighted the benefits of developing local or endogenous capabilities in science and technology, it did not provide the breakthrough in funding to build these capabilities that most participants expected.” (Oldham, forthcoming)

In addition to the financing mechanism for S&T projects, after ‘Vienna’ a new political body was created – an intergovernmental committee of the United Nations General Assembly. “Theoretically, the new committee was a powerful political body in the area of international science and technology policy because it was open to all Member States and reported to the General Assembly.” The Vienna institutions succeeded in producing “a substantial number of relevant reports on technology issues [and] provided advice to the international community. […] However, it never had any substantial financial means at its disposal and active participation by Member States declined over the years following the initial momentum created by the conference. The Financing System […] eventually became an integrated unit of the United Nations Development Programme. During most of the lifetime of these two institutional arrangements, the policies chosen by the IGC and the projects funded by the Financing System remained separate.” (UN, 1997)



Berlinguet, L. (1979) ‘New Tools for Development’, S&T Dossier, International Development Research Centre (IDRC).  Available online: http://idrinfo.idrc.ca/Archive/ReportsINTRA/pdfs/v7n4e/109620.pdf

UNCTAD (1997)  ‘Note by the UNCTAD Secretariat for Consideration of Ways and Means of Commemorating in 1999 of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Vienna Conference on Science and Technology for Development’.  Economic and Social Council. Commission on Science and Technology for Development.  Third Session. Geneva, 12 May 1997.  E/CN.16/1997/7.  Accessed online at: http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/ecn16_97d7.en.pdf

Oldham, G. Personal Communication (Interview March 2009)

Oldham, G., forthcoming. ‘45 Years On’ in M. Carr and T. Marjoram (eds) Minding the Gap: Technology, Policy and Poverty Reduction, UNESCO

Standke, K.-H., Anandakrishnan, M.  (1979). ‘Science, Technology, and Society: Needs, Challenges, and Limitations: Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Science, Technology, and Society’, Vienna, Austria, 13-17 August 1979 / organized under the auspices of the United Nations Advisory Committee on the Application of Science and Technology to Development (ACAST).

For a critical review of ’Vienna’ and the process leading up to it, see D. Dickson (1984) The New Politics of Science, New York: Pantheon

Morehouse, Ward (ed).  (1984) Third World Panacea or Global Boondoggle?  The UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development Revisited, RPI Discussion Paper 159, Sweden: Research Policy Institute, University of Lund

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