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Getting the balance right on science policy and gender

Copyright: Nick Ishmael Perkins

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02/10/13

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During the opening session of the 24th General Meeting of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), which is being held in Buenos Aires this week (1-4 October), the Argentinian minister of science and technology (S&T), Lino Barañao, said that those with responsibility for science policy in developing countries have to be like the Roman god Janus — with two faces.

This is not for reasons of duplicity, but because of the need to look out at the evolving bodies of knowledge, practice and partnerships internationally, while also looking internally at the relationships that should be fostered between government, the private sector, academia and civil society in general. After all, as the minister quoted, although science has no borders, scientists do and that makes it clear that responsibility must lie at a national level.

South Africa's S&T minister, Derek Hanekom, later said that he felt it was more important to get the national partnerships right than the international ones. But that didn't stop him from calling on other governments to join his plans to support TWAS with doctoral fellowships.

So is one area of focus more important than the other? Is there a trade-off between investing more time at the national or international level? And how does TWAS help to negotiate that trade-off?

The representative of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alessandra Di Pippo, made it clear that they expect TWAS to both "act globally and locally". The Italians are by far the most loyal and generous funder of TWAS — their support is enshrined in law. So while this was only a reflection, TWAS may want to bear in mind where it comes from.

The 'ministerial session' in the afternoon was an interesting reflection of the challenge. An impressive nine senior policy officials, including S&T ministers or their representatives, from six countries assembled to talk about challenges and successes. Yet there was no discussion of how to help internalise these high-profile case studies for other countries and their academies. There was simply no time.

Perhaps most devastating was how the hall emptied out for this session. It might have been the time of day, as it came just after 3pm, but it did feel like a missed opportunity on a number of levels.

I had a fascinating conversation with Shirley Malcom, who has been shaping discussions on science, gender and communication for more than 30 years and has contributed to countless boards and commissions throughout her career. She now chairs an advisory panel for TWAS. We reviewed the sorry state of women as a professional class of scientists around the world. We acknowledged that there had been precious little change in 30 years. But most of our lunchtime chat was about how to move the conversation on — and do something.

To achieve that Malcom looked to other fields, such as architecture, and to other stories of transformation, including from medical training. Then she started talking about applying the essence of these stories systematically, including in national science academies. She said that it's not about interventions, it's about structures and systems. It was inspiring. (Watch this space for her forthcoming op-ed.)

It was an interesting example of what the god Janus was always supposed to symbolise: using a combination of perspectives to achieve a transformation. The Romans named the first month of the year after him.

I think TWAS got the right people in the room. Now let's make the space to bring in a new kind of year. And on their 30th anniversary, the time feels right.


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