Getting science into policymaking is challenging — but a recent workshop for African parliamentary researchers suggested new ways forward.
Fidel Ayogu, a former member of the Nigerian Parliament, vividly remembers the day that money allocated by the government to build a new water supply to his constituency ran out — with the only half the work completed. The reason, he says, was simple.
Rather than studying the diverse geological conditions facing each constituency needing a new water system, the government simply divided the total amount available into equal sums. For some — where water lies near the surface — this was enough to cover the costs of a new supply system; for others it was not.
For Ayogu, an engineer by training who is now Nigeria's high commissioner to Uganda, the experience was just one example of why African parliamentarians need access to scientific expertise if they are to effectively scrutinise government policies. It also illustrates the need to translate scientific knowledge so that it can be integrated into public policy.
Communication is key
Addressing research staff from 12 African parliaments at a workshop in Kampala, Uganda, last month, Ayogu said that many parliamentarians recognise both the relevance of, and need for, scientific information when making policy.
"But the extent to which they can use this information mainly depends on the way it is communicated to them, and the extent to which the information can be reconciled with the concerns of their various constituencies," he added.
Providing parliamentarians and parliamentary researchers with the skills they need to overcome this communications gap was the key focus of the workshop, which was organised by SciDev.Net, the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), and the African Technology Policy Studies network, with financial support from the Gatsby Trust.
Participants were selected from African parliamentary staff — including clerks, researchers and librarians — in Botswana, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Somaliland, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
The participants identified some practical hurdles to getting science into parliamentary debates, including the large amount of information that parliamentarians must absorb over a relatively short time.
Other obstacles ranged from limited resources available for parliamentary research, to what one participant described as a lack of a "reading culture" in Africa. Some blamed the lack of a science background among African lawmakers, saying it sometimes amounted to a "phobia" of science, with its roots in the way that science is taught in school.
All these, agreed the workshop, create formidable challenges to evidence-based policymaking.
Getting the message across
John Mugambe, the chair of the science and technology committee of the Parliament of Uganda, underlined the importance of receiving "good quality information" to properly review and discuss the scientific aspects of bills going through parliament.
"Too often, members of parliament depend on guesswork, or on just listening to a friend," he said.
Both the researchers and parliamentarians agreed that getting scientific information into the hands of lawmakers requires better communication. And this means more than handing over thick technical reports that few are likely to read, let alone understand.
"Scientific messages to be received by members of parliament need to be clear, simple, brief, and as far as possible free of scientific jargon," said Agoya. Mugambe agreed, commenting "there is a difference between what you need and what you get".
All workshop participants agreed that the challenge of effectively communicating science-related issues is easier to define than to resolve. But they also suggested some potential ways forward.
One was to hold regular capacity building workshops across Africa. These should focus on building the skills that parliamentary researchers need, not only to communicate well (such as writing effective briefing notes), but also to locate and interpret the scientific information that lawmakers need, particularly learning how to find reliable information on the Internet.
To reinforce these activities, the participants also agreed an invitation-only web-based discussion group would be a valuable way to share relevant information and experience. This has now been created*, under the name AFRIPAR (after African Parliaments Research and Information Network). It aims to promote the development and transformation of Africa by providing quality research and information services.
No-one at the Kampala workshop pretended there are easy solutions to getting more science into policymaking in Africa. But everyone agreed that the task is essential for the future of effective and transparent government on the continent. Hopefully the Kampala workshop will be the first of many initiatives in this direction.