A US$20 million grant from the Gates Foundation should help science academies raise the level of political discourse on science-related issues on the continent. The challenge is to use this money in a non-elitist way.
All professional organisations have a dual function. One is to promote the activity that its members are engaged in, whether it is bee-keeping or civil engineering. The organisation that brings together practitioners in the field — be they beekeepers, civil engineers or whatever — will seek to enhance public perceptions of the activity in question, particularly where it feels that this activity has been undervalued or misunderstood.
But the principal role of professional organisations is to both promote and defend the interests of their members. This may include ensuring that those seeking to be recognised as members of the profession involved, once they have been able to demonstrate an agreed level of competence, are permitted to share in both its influence and its rewards. It will also involve defending the profession when it is under attack, a task closely linked to the promotional activities described above.
Academies of science are no exception. Increasingly in recent years, such bodies have felt it important to take an active part in debates over issues that relate to the impact of science on society. In areas ranging from climate change to human cloning, they have chosen to take a public stand, in particular through setting up review committees and publishing reports and statements. These can often be highly influential, particularly when they are seen to adopt expert, non-partisan positions on controversial topics. They can also add a much-needed voice or reality to such debates, for example by avoiding either populism or political ideology.
At the same time, however, it should not be forgotten that the main function of a scientific academy, like any other professional body, is to defend the interests of its members. This function is, of course, completely compatible with the role described above; enhancing the scientific content of political discourse is an entirely legitimate way of enhancing the status of scientific practice — and those engaged in such practice. But it can also help to solidify aspects of scientific practice that should remain open to scrutiny.
Welcome boost for African science
This dilemma encapsulates both the promise and the challenge contained in last week's announcement that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is to provide US$20 million over the next ten years to strengthen scientific academies in Africa (see African science academies get US$20 million boost). The money will be used partly to help such organisations play a more effective role in the political arena, enhancing their ability to influence governments through, for example, carrying out and publishing studies on key areas of social concern. Three scientific academies will, in particular, be selected as the focus of these capacity-building efforts, although the US National Academy of Sciences, which is co-ordinating this programme, says that efforts will be made to ensure that academies in other countries across the continent will benefit as well.
The grant is a welcome one. Science can only prosper in an environment in which the norms of scientific practice are validated. This has been one of the key roles played by scientific academies over the past three and a half centuries since the oldest still in existence, the Royal Society in London, was established in 1660.
The most familiar way of doing this is through the peer-review process that underpins, for example, both the publication of scientific journals and the election of fellows (both decisions that, in principle, are made on the basis of scientific quality). The more that academies in Africa can play both roles effectively, the easier it will be to build scientific capacity-building into the policies of African states.
Furthermore, such countries would, as has frequently been expressed on this website, clearly benefit from an increased awareness of the potential value of science in addressing critical problems and challenges. Whether addressing the options for increasing the availability of clean water, or deciding whether to allow the planting of genetically modified crops, a better understanding of the underlying scientific evidence on both sides of a political argument can only be beneficial for all involved.
If there is a concern about the role of academies, however, it relates not so much to what they do, as to how they do it. An academy is, by its nature, an elite; individuals are elected solely on the judgement that their competence places them at the top of their profession. And this gives them, almost by definition, a power and influence in the political sphere that is denied to many of their colleagues.
Where wisely and sensitively used, this power and influence can be highly beneficial. Academies around the world have, for example, been at the forefront of those warning governments about the likely harmful consequences of anthropogenic global warming.
But elites can also become self-serving, and in the process lose contact with the wider societies in which they are embedded. Some may end up defending the privileges of their members; this has, for example, frequently been one of the criticisms aimed at Soviet-style academies that dominated Eastern Europe for the second half of the 20th century.
Others can fall prey to overstating the case for science as the basis of social policy, rather than as merely one component, however essential. This tendency to see basic science, rather than an innovative system of which science is a part, as the starting point for social or economic development is the main weakness of an otherwise excellent report on science capacity building published recently by the InterAcademy Council (see Capacity building: a chance for action).
It also lies at the root of a current conflict between the British government and the Royal Society over the role of science in UK development policy (see Britain must do more to link science to development).
An opportunity for change
With suitably enlightened leadership (as well as guidance), the three African academies that stand to gain from the generosity of the Gates Foundation should be able to avoid these pitfalls. What is required is the recognition that the nature of science — and the role of science in society — has changed dramatically since the first scientific academies were established. There is no room for self-serving elites in the modern world, which, rightly, requires both relevance and accountability in all its public institutions, including its scientific communities.
In practice, this means that these academies must be fully integrated into the societies that they seek to serve. Various characteristics will help them to achieve this goal. One is a commitment by the academies in Africa (as elsewhere) to operate in a transparent manner, embracing (and occasionally, if necessary, rejecting) ideas and those who espouse them on the basis of intellectual merit, not scientific dogma.
Related to this is a need for a full-blooded commitment to effective communication. Gone are the days, at least in more progressive societies, when political decisions were made by a small political elites that could be easily influenced by expert committees. Responses to today's science-related issues tend to be forged in the cauldron of public debate (think of genetically modified crops or human cloning). That is where scientific committees need to make their mark, and that requires listening to others as much as lecturing to them.
Previous efforts to make academies the focal points of scientific renaissance in Africa have met with mixed success, partly because they have often modelled themselves on conservative attitudes and outdated practices. The money from the Gates foundation should be sufficient for at least some of these academies to develop their full potential. But they must do so embracing a new, non-elitist model that is based on the needs and practices of the modern world.