25 April 2012 | EN
Countries in the region need an organised, concerted effort to strengthen scientific input into decision-making, urges Crispin Maslog.
As governments seek to steer a course through the nuances of genetically modified crops, nuclear reactors and environmental degradation, policy decisions are often made by bureaucrats with little background in science.
How to increase the likelihood that their decisions are evidence-based is a challenge for developed and developing countries alike — but none more so than the science-deprived countries of South-East Asia and the small island nations of the Pacific.
Not enough scientists
The science policy establishment is dominated by lawyers and politicians — competent people who, for the most part, have never been involved in science. As a result they have a limited ability to understand the science that underpins their policy decisions.
In 2006 I was involved in a campaign to get a scientist elected onto the Philippine Congress. We were defeated at the polls, partly because our candidate, an award-winning geneticist, lacked the political savvy to win voters. This is not unusual in the Asia–Pacific scene.
One problem is that we do not produce enough scientists. As the former president of Thailand's National Science and Technology Development Agency, Sakarindr Bhumiratana, said, "Thais are better at producing artists and poets than scientists and researchers". This can be said for most, if not all, of the countries in the region.
And increasing technical complexity, along with the convergence of multiple disciplines such as nanotechnology and biotechnology, make it harder for policymakers to fully understand scientific developments.
The good news is that many science and technology issues have moved to the forefront of policy debate and the front pages of press coverage. Yet awareness of the importance of science is still low among the general public.
We need to invest more in communicating about science. An educated public would force policymakers to try to understand the scientific basis for legislation affecting the environment, for example.
This creates a new imperative for scientists to engage in policy; not to make technical experts out of policymakers, but to give them the background information they need to make good decisions.
In recognition of this imperative the Inaugural Asia Pacific Science Policy Studies (SPS) Research Conference was held earlier this year (8-10 February 2012) in Wellington, New Zealand, a country with strong ties to the Pacific nations. 
The conference stimulated discussions between science policy researchers, government officials, industry and professional associations, as well as Māori scientists and those possessing indigenous knowledge.
We need to follow this up, perhaps by forming a network of interested stakeholders to lobby for scientists to have more involvement in government.
Good, old-fashioned lobbying is the most effective way of making a difference.
But most scientists, especially in Asia–Pacific countries, are preoccupied with developing their own research instead of considering its impact on society. It is time that national scientists' organisations, such as the Philippines National Academy of Science and Technology, add lobbying to their agenda.
Scientists and the mass media must also engage more intensely in science communication to make science more accessible, understandable and usable not only to the public, but to policymakers too.
It is worth considering introducing a course and career option in science policy advocacy alongside our university science courses. Related to this would be science policy internships in government offices for graduate science students.
In Canada, the Canadian Policy Research Awards honour the contributions of the country's top academics, journalists and institutions to the formulation of science policy.
And in the UK the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology employs scientists to advise members of parliament on science and technology related to policy issues.
These advisors give briefings and prepare reports — which are also made available to the public — and organise seminars to bring parliamentarians together with academics, the media, nongovernmental organisations, other interest groups and the public. 
In the Philippines, lawmakers sometimes hold public hearings on key science issues that affect pending legislation, but they are few and far in between.
We must make more effort to strengthen scientific input into policymaking, to make it more consistent and better organised.
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
 Abstracts for the Inaugural Asia Pacific Science Policy Studies (SPS) Research Conference: Constructing National Wellbeing through Science and Innovation [754kB] (Wellington, New Zealand, 2012)
 Science Policy: Establishing Guidelines, Setting Priorities (Science Magazine, 2003)
Antonio ( United Kingdom )
30 April 2012
Thanks for this informative article. I agree with the author on the need to invest in improving the channels of advocacy of policy makers throughout, for example, better communication of science. However, let me raise a few issues:
1) Focusing on communication of research outcomes for policy makers is crucial, but not enough, alone, to close the gap between policy making and evidence use. I.e. we cannot assume that once research outcomes are clearly communicated to policy makers, these will use/understand science.
2) Hence, in order to make the advocacy action more effective, we have to work also to strengthen the capacities of policy makers (at any level) to understand science. Hence, capacity building of policy makers in this direction is necessary.
Indeed, a felt need to re-balance the strategy between communication of research to policy makers (supply of research) and capacity building of policy makers to understand and use science (stimulating the demand for research) was one of the main outcomes of the International Conference on Evidence-Informed Policy Making (held in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in February 2012).
After all, I think that by advocating for the use of evidence in policy making, we highlight also the role that scientists/researchers can play for the whole society.
Valli Faith ( Philippines )
15 May 2012
I can’t help but agree with the author. Having spent more than 20 years working in the legislature, I can tell you that the science-public policy relationship is, at best, difficult and dysfunctional; and, at worst, non-existent. Yet given present-day realities (i.e., climate change, resource mismanagement on wide scale), decisions in government need to be data-driven, and based on the best science available. There certainly is a need for a conscious effort to bridge the gap between the work of our scientist and our policymakers, and to devote more energy to helping policy makers to understand science and for scientists to understand policy processes.
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