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Transforming policy through science in Africa

Scientific evidence is regarded around the world as an increasingly important contributor to good government. This is as true of the global South, where governments face issues of sustainable development, poverty reduction and building healthy societies, as it is of the North.

The problem is that reliable, evidence-based insights for policy are hard to find.

One approach that has worked well in Europe, North America and elsewhere is for such evidence to come from the scientific community – including experts in areas such as medicine, technology and sometimes the arts and social sciences – via a respected and properly resourced academy of science.

The United States National Academies or the Royal Society in the United Kingdom are prime examples.

A small group of colleagues and I, working under the auspices of the InterAcademy Council, a multinational organisation of science academies, have just completed reviewing a 10-year, US$20 million programme designed to show whether the same approach would work in Africa and by extension, elsewhere in the South.

The ASADI project

ASADI – the African Science Academy Development Initiative – was supported mainly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the US National Academies.

It supported significant expansion of science academies in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda and provided lower levels of backing for other African academies.

Our review of ASADI found that this approach works. ASADI was an unusually long and complex project. But its initial objectives were all met and exceeded.

Some, such as staff training, were internally focussed on capacity building. A European science academy might well have a complete finance department. But for an African academy, it would be a big step forward to have even one staff member trained in finance.

Other objectives were more outward-looking. These included a big increase in the number of consensus reports on scientific issues of importance to policy.

One significant difference between Northern and Southern political systems is that those in the rich world tend to be far denser. There are far more lobby groups, think-tanks and policy organisations in a typical developed world capital city than in most African ones.

As a result, science academies in the South are competing in a rather less crowded marketplace of ideas and information than their Northern counterparts.

The case of Ethiopia

An example is the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, or EAS. Our review group was told by the Ethiopian government that the very existence of the academy is a sign of national prestige for this important country.

The EAS was given legal status by a 2013 act of parliament, an important milestone that not all academies have reached.

The ASADI money has allowed it to get better office space, more facilities and more staff. More importantly, it has been able to build up its importance in the Ethiopian system. It is the only non-governmental body represented on Ethiopia’s science, technology and innovation council, whose other members include 14 cabinet ministers.

Biotechnology is regarded as a key area for Ethiopia’s economic future, and the EAS is one of the government’s key advisers in this area. It is also being consulted about everything from science education to the expansion of Ethiopian astronomy and the possible creation of an industrial museum.

Nigeria and South Africa

At the other extreme in terms of scale are the Nigerian and South African academies. They are embedded in far larger economies and have more staff and a longer history. They also have a more significant level of core funding from government.

But even with these advantages, they found ASADI transformational.

The Nigerian academy has been especially active as a source of health advice. Its 2012 analysis of the importance of breastfeeding was backed by Save the Children and has been influential in legislation on workplace creches and in thinking on maternity leave and on food and nutrition policy.

The Lagos state health ministry told us that it now has “an open door policy relationship with the NAS [Nigerian Academy of Science]”.

Future channels for evidence in Africa

Our review found that problems remain with African science academies, including the need to stay financially and organisationally sustainable beyond ASADI.

This calls for members – usually distinguished academics – to commit time and effort to them, especially to fundraising and to ensuring that channels to government remain open.

The idea of being able to influence government policy is an appealing one for scientists and academics, but people who have the status and the ability needed to carry out these activities are invariably busy.

This means that there is a case for some future continuation of the ASADI process. At 10 November’s Annual Meeting of African Science Academies – AMASA – in Kampala, where our report was presented, there was enthusiasm for involving more academies in future, from within and beyond Africa.

More importantly, our review suggests that there is scope for the successor to ASADI to be designed, funded and delivered within Africa itself, with a greater or lesser level of Northern involvement.

Current economic growth in Africa means that it is more feasible than in the past to raise money for this kind of activity. How to pursue this transition was a topic of discussion at AMASA, and will continue to be debated.

Learning from each other

One of ASADI’s most important effects was to increase the African academies’ ability to learn from each other. Because most of them are small, this dialogue will continue to be important.

The academies of Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa have already taken on regional leadership roles in Western, Central and Southern Africa respectively. In addition, the existing Network of African Science Academies – NASAC – could be strengthened and expanded.

At the same time, it is important for academies, and the researchers who make up their membership, to learn more about dealing with their own nations’ political machinery.

Politicians and officials work on a short timescale by university standards and do not always deal well with concepts such as risk and uncertainty. They may also find the idea of disinterested independent advice problematic, especially if it is telling them something unwelcome.

Despite these issues, we are sure that a properly structured academy of science is a valuable asset for any nation interested in sustainable development, in having a healthier population, or in coping with the issues raised by global climate change.

We look forward to the next stage of their development in Africa and beyond.

* Professor Turner Isoun chaired the InterAcademy Council ASADI Review and is former federal minister of science and technology of Nigeria.
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