Africa's academies should take a leading role in lobbying their governments for science funding, argues Linda Nordling.
Should African academies lobby governments? Lobbying seems at odds with the usual role of such institutions in national policymaking — that of providing politically neutral science-based evidence for policy decisions.
Indeed, the world of lobbying presents a challenge for academies, which are seldom attracted to the wheeling and dealing on which it operates.
Certainly there is a danger that lobbying can damage an academy's credibility. Taking sides in a debate in which the science remains uncertain would be inappropriate for such institutions
However, deft lobbying could help academies ensure that science-based evidence is heard among the clamour of voices trying to influence policymakers. It might also help persuade political leaders to allocate more resources to science.
Take a stand
Whether academies should brave this tightrope was discussed at the sixth annual meeting of the African Science Academies Development Initiative (ASADI), a ten-year programme to strengthen African academies and coach them in giving evidence to policymakers, which took place outside Cape Town, South Africa, last month (8–10 November).
The question was raised by Ian Thornton, a policy adviser from the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. He told the gathered academicians how, in the run-up to the country's general election in May this year, the academy produced a lobby paper to fight for the science budget.
At the time, it was clear that a change of government was to be expected in Britain, Thornton said. It also looked as if the new government, following the financial crisis through which the country had just passed, would face one of the tightest national budgets in recent history.
The society's report, 'The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity', was signed by two former science ministers and a handful of Nobel Prize winners. It stressed that the United Kingdom would lose its competitive edge if the government took an axe to the science and technology budget.
The report received a lot of coverage in the mainstream British media. It even made it into The Sun, a tabloid daily not known for its science policy coverage. And come the new government's first spending review, science got a smooth ride compared with many competing budget areas.
When lobbying is legitimate
Thornton caused a stir at the ASADI meeting because he dared use the word "lobbying" to describe the society's actions. Patrick Kelley, director of the US National Academies of Science's board to ASADI, said with a smile that his organisation "educated", rather than lobbied, policymakers. The African academicians in the audience were also doubtful.
However, the Royal Society used its clout to lobby in an area where it should not be expected to be impartial: the national science budget. This is an area where academies should not fear to take a leading role in forming a national "science lobby" to promote spending on science in their countries.
Academies should also take a stand where scientific evidence supports a particular policy approach. For instance, climate scientists predict increasing fluctuations in annual rainfall across the continent. Academies should champion such evidence in policy debates.
Africa has a poor record of science lobbying. History has been partly response for this state of affairs. Patchy national funding and slumps in international grants have forced even the continent's best scientists to lead a hand-to-mouth existence for many decades. As teaching burdens have increased, little energy has remained to carry out research, let alone engage with policymakers.
This is starting to change. Admittedly, national science expenditure is small in most African countries, with on average 0.3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on science and technology. But several countries, including Tanzania and Uganda, are slowly starting to increase their national science spend.
Practice makes perfect
Already, a small number of African academies are trying science lobby hats on for size. "We lobby for government funding for science and yes, it has made a difference," says Paul Nampala, executive secretary of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences.
The Nigerian Academy of Science is similarly moving along this path, says its president, Oye Ibidapo-Obe. "We will intensify that type of scientific lobbying in the future," he says.
Others, however, are not comfortable with the word "lobbying". Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa, says, "I would prefer to avoid the use of the word when discussing the policy advisory role of academies because of the negative connotations that the word carries.
"Academies provide advice based on evidence and put effort into disseminating their findings and ensuring uptake, but I would stop short of calling this lobbying."
It may be too ambitious for African academies to try mimicking the Royal Society. After all, the society has had 350 years to build its reputation as a font of wisdom. Most African academies are less than a decade old.
But practice makes perfect. A strong science lobby would champion African science, helping it compete for funding with other government priorities. Just as importantly, it would also make sure that government promises are kept, and that public money is spent transparently on quality science.
Of course, African governments will expect to steer the resulting investment so that it translates into development-friendly innovations and policies, rather than ivory-tower output that fails to benefit society. But that is a fair price to pay to create a sustainable, vigorous African science base.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, The Guardian, Nature and others.