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Improving scientific literacy in developing countries' parliaments would boost sustainable development.

Science and technology are slowly moving up the political agenda in many developing countries. Politicians don't want their countries to be left out of the global knowledge economy, and are realising that science can contribute to virtually every field of public policy.

But too often an essential ingredient is neglected. Parliamentarians must be well informed if they are to stimulate, formulate and scrutinise science-related policies, and ensure such policies drive sustainable development.

A meeting held in Nairobi last week (29–30 June), organised by the Kenyan Academy of Sciences (KNAS) and Britain's Royal Society, highlighted a spectrum of obstacles in the way of scientifically literate parliaments, including poor scientific understanding and the different timescales within which scientists and politicians operate.

At one end of this spectrum, resources may simply be lacking. Many parliaments have neither the research staff nor the basic technical equipment, such as reliable Internet connections, to access the information they need.

At the other end is a lack of political will. If senior politicians do not accept that science and technology are crucial, and that democratic debate about their impacts is equally important, they are unlikely to support moves by more junior politicians to address either.

Parliaments need science

Nevertheless, many of the meeting's delegates presented a strong case for greater scientific literacy within parliaments. Noah Wekesa, Kenya's minister for science and technology — who himself studied veterinary medicine — told the meeting that strengthening links between scientific and parliamentary communities was essential.

"The first step to inculcating science and technology into our national ethos is the recognition by parliament that science, technology and innovation are critical tools for policy formulation," Wekesa said. Academies such as the KNAS had an important role in ensuring this happens.

Some attendees, such as Ruth Oniango — previously a professor of food science and nutrition at Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, and now an influential member of the Kenyan National Assembly — encouraged colleagues to follow her in giving science a stronger voice in parliament.

Others highlighted the importance of strengthening parliamentary review mechanisms — for example over the best way of regulating genetically modified crops (see SciDev.Net's spotlight on Agri-biotech in sub-Saharan Africa).

Bridging the gap

Several ideas for bridging the science-politics divide were proposed. There was considerable enthusiasm for copying the Royal Society's scheme, in which some parliamentarians agree to be 'paired' with researchers from their constituencies.

Further suggestions included encouraging more scientists to become elected politicians, and establishing institutional mechanisms that let the scientific community contribute its knowledge to legislative debates (such as parliamentary offices of science and technology).

Such initiatives can really place science on the national political agenda. For example, the Ugandan parliament has had a science and technology committee since 2002. Its chair, Amuriat Patrick Oboi, said it has already significantly raised science's profile in national economic policies.

Difficulties remain

But it has not been easy. Many scientists, said Oboi, still don't want to, or won't, discuss their work with political leaders who are not scientifically trained. Despite the committee's efforts, many legislators remain uninformed about both national and international issues in science and technology.

Oniango also spoke of difficulties in persuading her colleagues to take science seriously. Indeed, several members of the Kenyan parliament's science and technology committee failed to address the KNAS workshop because of competing political pressures from an upcoming general election.

Almost all speakers said getting information about science and technology was difficult — despite the fact that much of this already exists on the Internet.

The challenge for parliamentary researchers is first locating relevant and reliable information, then translating it into language that parliamentarians can understand, and finally making it directly relevant to national political priorities — in other words, to the day-to-day concerns of the average politician.

Independent journalism can help

It was striking how many speakers emphasised journalists' roles in bringing scientific and technological information to policymakers' attention. Indeed, the meeting recommended greater support for science journalism training.

But journalists must take care not lose their political independence. Just as parliaments must scrutinise government actions, so journalists must scrutinise the actions of both governments and their parliaments.

Well-informed journalism can certainly help ensure that political debate is grounded in reliable science, undistorted by vested interests. Both journalists and parliamentarians share a common interest in enhancing their scientific literacy.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net