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  • South Africa 'must seek scientific advice'

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[CAPE TOWN] Scientists at a meeting last week (3 March) urged South African policymakers to make more use of scientific advice.

The meeting was held in Pretoria/Tshwane, and focused on the need to improve communication between the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and policymakers.

Mark Orkin, former head of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, told delegates that ASSAf represented "an opportunity for the government to tap into the expertise of its higher education system at very little cost".

However, many government representatives at the meeting said they had been unaware of the academy's existence.

Others did not realise that the academy does not do fundamental research, as universities do, but exists to weigh evidence on key issues before presenting its conclusions to the public and government.

Set up in 1996, the ASSAf spent its early years creating itself as a new institution to replace the racially and linguistically divided organisations that existed during the apartheid era that ended in 1994.

The academy's first study, on scientific publishing in South Africa, could have major implications for universities, which the government funds partly on the basis of how many papers their academics publish in peer-reviewed journals.

The second study could be more controversial, as it focuses on how nutrition affects immunity in HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients. The South African government has backed vitamin supplements, traditional herbal medicines and a diet of beetroot, olive oil and garlic instead of anti-retroviral drugs as a weapon against HIV/AIDS.

Attending the meeting were representatives of ASSAf and the government, as well as scientists from other South African institutions and from academies in other countries.

ASSAf members were surprised to learn that the US National Academy of Sciences often takes funding from government departments. The UK Royal Society, in contrast, prefers being totally independent from the government.

Most ASSAf members felt that their academy should initially model itself on the Royal Society to avoid any perception that income from government could influence its findings.

"In African countries, there is no tradition of science academies being trusted or used," said ASSAf's executive officer Wieland Gevers. "It is a tightrope between being independent and being heard."

The meeting was convened as part of a ten-year project by the US National Academy of Sciences to strengthen the capacity of science academies in Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda to influence government policy (see Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda win academy funds).

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