Red tape threatens to strangle science

Draconian new regulations for all academic research in Namibia represent a first-class invitation to several possible constitutional lawsuits.

Under Namibia’s liberal constitution, the country’s feisty print media enjoys freedoms not often seen in Africa. The easy and open access to information has also made Namibia a favourite destination for international academic researchers who have studied its rich geology, biology, anthropology and astronomy.

So it came as a shock when a local NGO, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), discovered last year that regulations announced by the Education Ministry towards the end of 2011 would severely curtail many of these freedoms.

The independent Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) took up their cause, arguing that the regulations in their present form posed a clear threat to democracy.

The new regulations

The regulations form part of the otherwise laudatory Research, Science and Technology Act, which seeks to coordinate all research in Namibia, as well as promoting broader scientific participation by local institutions, organising seminars and setting national research priorities.

The new regulations cover all research in engineering, medicine, agriculture, the natural and social sciences, and the humanities.

They are too broad, however, and endanger academic freedom. In addition, the education ministry did not consult civil society during the formulation of the regulations, the LAC complained.

“The current scheme appears to violate both the letter and spirit of the constitution, and the very idea of democracy and the free marketplace of ideas, characterised by the freedom of speech, thought and debate which helps sustain any democracy,” claimed the LAC, which is not known for alarmist pronouncements, in a 20-page critique.

The regulations are so extensive that very few small research teams could ever hope to meet the excessive bureaucratic requirements of obtaining a formal research permit, such as the completion of a 16-page questionnaire by every person involved in the research.

Under the new regulations, the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology (NCRST), a body that is still to be formalised, may levy stiff fees up to NAD20,000 (US$2,200) or a five-year jail sentence.

The NCRST itself is a major bone of contention. The state directly appoints eight of the commission’s 12 members, including six by the education minister, one by the president and one by the director of the National Planning Commission.

The state has indirect influence over two of the remaining members of the commission: one is to be nominated by the National Council for Higher Education, the other by an academic organisation of the education minister’s choosing.

That leaves only two civil society members on the commission: a local business chamber representative and one from the LAC, much to its surprise.

Government interference

LAC Director Toni Hancox questioned the independence of such a body. In its current form it would be subject to the State-owned Enterprises Governance Act and thus under presidential control regarding what research should be done in Namibia.

The new regulations contradict both the letter and spirit of the Namibian constitution’s article III that guarantees personal freedom of movement, association and study, according to the LAC. They are also in conflict with developmental objectives of the latest national development plan.

For example, the regulations interfere with the Environmental Management Act of 2007 that seeks to regulate the sustainable mining of Namibia’s many mineral resources. This industry is key to the government’s blueprint for economic development.

But the new regulations impose a bureaucratic and financial burden on environmental scientists that would easily double the costs and time involved in research. A scientist in this field said that his clients would “simply evaporate” if more costly bureaucracy were imposed.

The new regulations prohibit any researcher or research institution from conducting research unless it is accredited with the NCRST. However, the regulations’ very broad terms imply that virtually everyone, from lawyers researching case law to media outlets compiling and analysing readership statistics – and even school science fairs – could be construed to fall within their ambit.

This poses particular problems for the Namibian media. A mere phone call to an official or a visit to the national archives could be construed as doing research, and thus subject to the new regulations.

Unlike the somewhat muted reaction in local academia (where most are employed by the state), the local press has been vociferous in its criticism.

Clamping down on independent research

There are already signs that the Namibian government is clamping down on independent research.

In December 2012 a group of climate researchers from a German university were suddenly notified that their visa applications would henceforth be handled in Windhoek. Previously, the Namibian embassy in Berlin processed visas within two weeks. But now the Home Affairs Ministry in the capital will issue all visas – a two-to three-month process.

In a private email to his colleagues, the leader of the research group said that as a result of the changes, research scheduled during Namibia’s brief rainy season of January-February would be delayed, and in some cases, may have to be abandoned.

For local research institutes such as the highly respected IPPR, the new regulations are a hugely expensive and onerous burden, as every participant in every study would have to be identified several months in advance.

“It would be a bureaucratic nightmare as we would have to apply for every piece of research, and also very expensive as each application and approval has to be paid for in [advance] fees to the new commission,” said IPPR Director Graham Hopwood.

Hidden agendas

Discovering just how the new regulations came into being is a matter of second-guessing hidden agendas.

In an interview with a local newspaper last month David Naamwandi, deputy education minister, said the government would listen to civil society’s concerns raised over the regulations, but warned that “regulations approved by cabinet could not be undone”.

Several legal sources rejected this view; all laws passed in Namibia have to pass muster under the Namibian constitution as the country’s supreme law, noted one lawyer.

Going that far would be a costly mistake for government, Hopwood said. The best result would be for the government to withdraw the regulations and consult with civil society, he argued, because going to court would be inordinately expensive and could take a long time.

But given Naamwandi’s official stance, chances are that the regulations will not be revised without a legal challenge.

* This article, “Namibia: Red tape threatens to strangle science”, first appeared in the latest edition of Africa in Touch, the journal of Good Governance Africa. It is republished with permission.