GLOBAL: Leaders need better understanding of science

A Ugandan report suggests that policy-makers' interest in science and technology is growing. But they need support to turn it into action. The lessons of the report are significant, and not only for Uganda.

If there was an easy route between scientific evidence and policy-making, the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) in Durban, South Africa, would surely have reflected the scientific consensus and ended in a clear-cut global agreement on immediate steps to curtail carbon emissions.

But, as the fractious debates made clear, the real world does not work that way. Scientists and politicians operate within different epistemological frameworks. This often means that what appears as an imperative course of action to one group is merely a potential, and not necessarily desirable, way forward to the other.

In the developed world, factors such as economic or political self-interest can often be blamed for the gap between evidence and policy-making. In the case of global warming, for example, most of those who continue to challenge the scientific evidence live in countries (such as the United States) that stand to lose most from curbs on carbon emissions.

In the developing world, in contrast, the failure to take scientific evidence into account in policy discussions tends to result from a lack of familiarity with the scientific method, or its significance and its limitations.

Policy-makers in these countries not only need to be aware of the scientific knowledge relevant to the decisions that they face, they also need to know the status, validity and limits of such knowledge compared with that from other sources - whether anecdotes from colleagues or political realities described in the media.

Lessons from Uganda

These issues are highlighted in a report, recently published by the parliament of Uganda and the Uganda National Academy of Sciences working with the UK's Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), on how the parliament handles issues relating to science, technology and innovation.

Interviews with members of parliament and their staff, combined with a study of debates and parliamentary briefings, paint a mixed picture.

On the positive side, the interviews revealed "widespread enthusiasm" for science and technology (S&T) among parliamentarians. More than 90% expressed an interest in these topics, and two-thirds not only wanted more debates on science issues but were keen that these debates should be evidence-based.

As the chair of the Ugandan parliament's standing committee on science and technology, Obua Denis Hamsom expressed this during a meeting at the UK parliament in London recently. "We are all learning that evidence-based policy-making is the way to go in this millennium".

Work to be done

But if the aspirations are impressive, the achievements have been less so. The report found that science-related issues received little attention in parliamentary debates, which were often poorly attended, with few parliamentarians believing that S&T was relevant to the life of their constituents.

The report also highlighted a limited availability of relevant information, with parliamentary library staff having difficulty accessing both in-country and external sources of scientific information. And in some cases, parliamentarians had problems in distinguishing reliable from unreliable scientific evidence.

Equally concerning is an analysis of parliamentary debates which, according to a POST official involved in the study, revealed factually incorrect statements going unchallenged, such as "there is no evidence that DDT causes toxic effects" and "80% of Ugandan women suffer from cervical cancer".

Some parliamentary briefing papers were well written but others were less impressive. These were poorly referenced, subject to personal bias and ignored key sources of evidence produced by authoritative international sources, such as the WHO and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Closing the gap

The lessons of the report are significant, not only for Uganda.

There is good news: parliamentarians seem to have taken on board that S&T has important contributions to make to development, a conclusion reflected elsewhere in the developing world.

But the gap it reveals between their enthusiasm for science and the ability to put it into practice must provoke some thought into how the gap can be bridged. This requires not only a familiarity with scientific evidence, but also a critical awareness of both its power and its limitations.

Some of the limitations were made clear in Durban. The case for the radical changes required to achieve a sustainable world cannot be made on scientific reasoning alone. This goal will only be achieved if robust science is added to a political agenda that appreciates its significance.

But that means that parliamentarians and other policy-makers need to learn to use it effectively, and this will require a better familiarity with the nature of scientific knowledge.

One of the main recommendations of the Ugandan report is that members of parliament should be given training both in "information literacy" and in the scientific method. Another is that the quality of scientific research actually used in policy-making should be evaluated, because good policies can only be based on good science.

Both may be ambitious objectives in a world where scientific knowledge is seen too often as the domain of scientific experts. But, as the Ugandan report indicates, they are essential if the full contribution of science to sustainable development is to be realised.

* David Dickson is the editor of SciDev.Net.

* This editorial, "Policy-makers Need a Better Understanding of Science", was published on 16 December by SciDev.Net. It is republished under creative commons licence.