Science and Policy: Still an old boys’ network?

Copyright: Flickr/International Council for Science

Speed read

  • Youths, women and developing countries inadequately represented in the summit
  • Politicians also under-represented despite being the target of scientific advice
  • Poor youth participation is symptomatic of wider problem in scientific community

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[AUCKLAND] I flew to New Zealand, on 27 August to cover the Science Advice to Governments conference, a gathering of scientists from nearly 50 countries.

The conference explored how scientists should convey knowledge to policymakers and what obstacles stand in their way. Discussions ranged from how to provide scientific input during humanitarian emergencies or amid “opposing” ideologies, to how a country can effectively build science capacity.

“This is the biggest group of real practitioners of the art of science advice” to ever gather in one place, said Peter Gluckman, the conference leader and chief science advisor to New Zealand’s prime minister.

But some participants questioned whether the conference, at an upscale Auckland hotel, could have better represented the global scientific community. Almost none of the conference participants were young, for example, and the first panel discussion consisted entirely of men.

“It did dawn on me, when I looked at the first panel, that it was incredibly male — in fact it was only male — and I think we should have done better,” Steven Wilson, executive director of the International Council for Science (ICSU), told me during a coffee break. The ICSU convened the conference.

Jacqueline McGlade, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) science chief, was more direct. “Every time you put a panel together,” she complained, “it’s like an old boys’ network.”

There were a number of delegates from Asia and Latin America at the Auckland event, but that was little consolation for Fola Babalola, a Nigerian forester at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“I look at the two-day programme: I can’t really see the presence of Africa!” he told the conference in a question-and-answer session.
Ditto for China, noted Yonglong Lu of the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences in Beijing.

A speaker from Tasmania, Australia, pointed out that yet another group was under-represented: politicians. How, he wondered, could a conference about scientific advice to governments not include them? Gluckman, the conference leader, replied that he had invited New Zealand politicians — but they were busy campaigning for the upcoming (20 September) general election. 

McGlade said the gaps in representation at scientific conferences were, unfortunately, symptomatic of a wider problem. Although it would be beneficial to bring more young people from developing countries into the scientific community, they often have trouble breaking in because the “old boys’ network” is too quick to “discount” their work, which tends to explore new paradigms and use interdisciplinary approaches that challenge the status quo.
Link to Science Advice to Governments global conference

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.

Editor's Note: In personal communication with SciDev.Net, the conference organisers have said that they tried to ensure a good gender balance as well as significant representation of delegates from developing countries and professional representation ‘’beyond a narrow practitioner-only basis’’. Conference organiser, James Wilsdon, said 15 of the 200 delegates were from African countries, and 13 other developing countries outside Africa were represented. There were female keynote speakers and an all-female panel, he added. The conference’s online programme indicates that women accounted for less than a quarter of its 35 scheduled speakers and panellists.