An international survey of more than 600 individuals engaged in integrating science into development policy has endorsed the role of "intermediary" organisations in enhancing communication between the scientific and policymaking communities.
The survey, commissioned by SciDev.Net and published last week (22 August), identifies the obstacles to better communication, including a low understanding of science among politicians and difficulties in getting access to relevant scientific information in a timely fashion.
But it also reveals a greater willingness among scientists in developing countries to act as advocates in policy debates than their counterparts in the developed world — for example, on topics such as food production or environmental protection.
And the final report shows that developing country researchers attach greater importance to the value of public engagement on science in making the science–policy interface work more effectively.
The survey was part of a research project commissioned last year by SciDev.Net from the UK-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), with financial support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
The electronic survey drew opinions from researchers, intermediaries and policymakers involved in science–policy dialogue .
This was guided by an initial literature review summarising current thinking about the complex relationship between science and policymaking, and identifying some of the tensions that this relationship can generate.
It was further complemented by case studies from a variety of countries from Cambodia to Ghana, as well as in-depth telephone interviews with selected stakeholders in both developed and developing countries.
The main conclusion from the project is that "the communication of scientific information for evidence-based policymaking is poorly institutionalised in developing country contexts".
The authors — Harry Jones, Nicola Jones and Cora Walsh — write that "policymakers and development practitioners would be able to make greater use of scientific research findings if scientists would engage more openly with the resulting policy implications and present a range of possible policy options".
Of the 600 individuals who responded to the survey, 46.7 per cent were researchers, 34.7 per cent identified themselves as knowledge intermediaries, and 18.3 per cent were policymakers. Almost two-thirds (63.9 per cent) came from developing countries.
Many of those interviewed expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with the degree to which policy is based on science and technological evidence. Sixty per cent of intermediaries expressed this opinion, but it was also held by 54 per cent of researchers and 42 per cent of policymakers.
The biggest single obstacle to the take-up of scientific information in development policy-making was identified as low scientific understanding amongst policymakers, with 64 per cent of respondents identifying this as a hurdle.
Other commonly-cited factors were the limited openness of politicians to external ideas (61 per cent), a lack of dissemination of research findings (59 per cent) and a lack of incentives to take scientific information on board in their decisions.
Significantly higher numbers of respondents in developing countries identified these obstacles as a concern.
"These systemic problems will require coordinated and holistic efforts by national governments, international actors and nongovernmental actors alike," write the authors.
There was a significant difference between developed and developing countries on the question of whether scientists should be seen as neutral information providers, or act as advocates by suggesting policy options and pushing for their adoption.
An equal number of respondents from developed and developing countries said that scientists should restrict themselves to providing information about research findings (17 per cent and 14 per cent respectively).
But almost three times as many developing country respondents felt that scientists should also suggest policy positions to decision-makers in addition to presenting research findings (43 per cent compared to 13 per cent from developed countries).
Policymakers also expressed a strong interest in greater access to advice from scientific experts regarding the policy relevance of their findings. "This represents a call for greater engagement and applicability of research findings to policy concerns," say the ODI researchers.
Those surveyed were also asked about their level of satisfaction with the availability of scientific and technical information in a number of different areas. The highest level of dissatisfaction (43 per cent) concerned information on indigenous knowledge, followed by the brain drain (28 per cent).
In contrast, 47 per cent expressed satisfaction with the amount of information available about climate change, though 28 per cent were dissatisfied.
In information and communications technology, 43 per cent said that they were satisfied with the information to which they had access and only 14 per cent were not.
Public engagement "essential"
Respondents were also asked what type of services would be useful in increasing their engagement with the research community. Most popular were opportunities to exchange opinions with scientists (67 per cent), followed by other opportunities for personal interaction.
Less valuable were debates on the web and online discussions, although these were still described as "most useful" by about one-third of respondents.
There was a significant difference in the proportion of respondents who believe that increasing participation from a scientific informed public will lead to improved development.
Only 30 per cent of those interviewed in developed countries agreed that greater public knowledge about science and technology was "essential" to improved development. But in the developing world this proportion was much higher, at 49 per cent.
The authors of the report say that, "the will to engage, the desire for deliberation, participation, opinion and advice and the demand for locally differentiated information all mark out promising avenues".
But they also add a note of caution. "Although engagement, deliberation, participation and advice represent important opportunities, they must be approached strategically and with realism regarding the power and politics involved in a specific context."
Link to full report [1.35MB]