This month representatives from more than 70 academies of science and medicine came from around the world to South Africa to discuss the issue of ‘Science Advice’. The academies present were all members of IAP – the global network of science academies – or its affiliated organisation the InterAcademy Medical Panel.
The triennial IAP Conference took place from 28 February to 1 March at the Arabella Hotel near Hermanus on the Cape coast in South Africa.
Academies are typically independent institutions that recognise and promote excellence and achievement. They are merit-based, with members selected from among the leading scientific minds within a country or region.
In addition to their honorific roles, academies are vital civil society institutions that have the credibility to inform the public and policy-makers about problems and potential solutions. Their credibility comes not only from the scientific excellence of their members, but also from the fact that they are free of vested political and commercial interests.
With participants ranging from the United Kingdom’s Royal Society and the French Académie des Sciences – both of which are more than 350 years old – to recently established academies such as those from Benin and Botswana, discussions covered over-arching themes on how best to present advice to governments, as well as the differing landscapes for such advice in different countries.
Opening the meeting, the South African Minster of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, informed the assembled academies that, following the apartheid era, there was little trust on the side of the newly established government in the advice systems of the previous regime.
For these reasons, the Academy of Science of South Africa was created: ASSAf was hosting the meeting to celebrate its 20th anniversary. ASSAf has grown to become a significant component of the South Africa science advice ecosystem, confirmed Pandor.
Science and policy – Different cultures
Sir Peter Gluckman, science adviser to the prime minister of New Zealand and chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice or INGSA, set the scene for much of the remainder of the conference.
He made the point that science and policy are fundamentally different cultures, adding that modern science is becoming increasingly non-normal, with non-linear relationships leading to uncertainties and disputed values.
The aim of scientists should be to build trust with governments and their agencies, he said, and to inform policy by translating scientific results into understandable language and concepts.
There should also be less expectancy among the scientific community that its advice will be taken on board because policy-making is a ‘messy’ process, with diverse inputs and viewpoints, and policy-makers must weigh many factors besides science.
But it is clear that better policies are put in place when science helps inform the process.
Women for Science
The end of the first full day of the conference was marked by the launch of a report on Women for Science: Inclusion and participation in academies of science, marking the culmination of studies into the numbers of women in academies of science around the globe as well as how active they are within those academies.
The global average for women’s membership in science academies is rather poor, confirms the report, at around 12%. Even the Cuban Academy of Sciences, which leads the way in gender equality, with 27% of its members being women, is still some way off parity – a challenge laid down by Pandor in her opening address.
Readiness for science advice
In the session on “Country Readiness for Science Advice”, it was noted that the United States National Academies was created by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 specifically to provide advice to the US government. This is also the case for other well-established academies in Europe and elsewhere.
However, as pointed out by Norbert Hounkonnou of Benin, the impact of science advice depends on the level of scientific development in a country, and in many African countries the critical mass of scientists is low and the advice framework is minimal.
Academies are typically well equipped to take on the role of science advice, but there is a need to develop relations with the government, including its agencies, and possibly finding a direct route, too, to the relevant minister or head of state. However, building such links can be difficult for weak or recently established academies.
In another keynote lecture Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist for the United Nations Environment Programme, highlighted that UNEP continues to produce in-depth reports on a variety of environmental issues – from water availability and drought, to the degree of pollution by plastics in the marine environment.
It uses some 1,200 expert scientists to source information from research published in all UN languages, and synthesises it for policy-makers and others.
Indeed, she noted that small countries (Finland was specifically mentioned) often rely on UNEP and other UN agencies as their ‘civil service’. McGlade also called on IAP, its member academies and leading scientists around the world to engage more with the UNEP process and broaden the base of expertise that is feeding into its reports.
Earlier in the conference, academies were provided with another opportunity to engage with international decision-making processes.
In the session on “Science Advice in Times of Disasters/Emergencies” Virginia Murray, vice-chair of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s scientific and technical advisory group, encouraged academies to get involved in communication to the public and to policy-makers by joining the Scientific and Technology Partnership for the Implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 – the agreement signed by world leaders when they met in Sendai, Japan, last year.
The final session of the conference, presented by Daya Reddy of ASSAf and Jörg Hacker of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, reviewed the over-arching themes that had emerged over the previous two days. These included:
- Avoid the hubris of thinking science has all the answers. Be an honest broker. Build trust.
- There is a need to be inclusive and solicit diverse inputs, especially from women, social scientists and young scientists.
- Training in communicating to the public and to policy-makers should be included in university curricula, and ways of rewarding scientists for communicating in such ways should be developed – in contrast to many current systems whereby career development is based on the publication of papers in high impact factor journals.
- Finally, there were many discussions on how we can help academies and other scientists to understand society better so that the scientific message can be tailored in the most appropriate way.
In other words, a key concept that emerged from the IAP Conference on Science Advice was ‘Communication, communication, communication’!
Dr Peter McGrath is coordinator of IAP – the Global Network of Science Academies – based in Trieste, Italy.
* The IAP Conference website link is here. You can follow the discussions that took place during the IAP conference on Twitter via #IAPartnership.
Only 12% of science academy members globally are women
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