Bridging the divide between science and politics

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A new study confirms the valuable role of ‘intermediary organisations’ in bringing scientific and policy-making communities closer together.

When SciDev.Net was established seven years ago, it was an article of faith among its founders that developing countries needed better ways to incorporate scientific information into their decision-making machinery. Our network and website were seen as ways of making this happen.

This need has been confirmed by one of the largest international studies to examine the interface between science and development policy. The study was commissioned last summer from researchers at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The full results have just been published, and are based on responses to an electronic survey of more than 600 scientists, intermediaries and policymakers (see Survey backs intermediaries in science communication).

The findings, which have been combined with a literature review and a series of case studies, are reassuring for those who have helped get SciDev.Net and similar enterprises off the ground. And they also provide invaluable insights into the challenges we still face in strengthening relationships between science and society within the developing world.

Still more to do

One of the literature review’s findings is that relatively little empirical research has been done on this relationship. The reasons are understandable, including the underdeveloped nature of science itself in many parts of the world. But the result is that anyone wanting to understand more than directly-observable tensions between science and society has to rely heavily on insights gained from more developed countries.

In some cases, as the authors themselves admit, issues that loom large in academic discussion within the developed world have generated little concern elsewhere. This is true, for example, of what they describe as the "scientisation" of politics — the tendency to disguise politically-motivated policies in technocratic language so as to cover up their contentious roots. Yet there are still warnings to be heeded, including the need to guard against science being used for political purposes rather than for improving decision-making.

The review and case studies reveal issues that deserve close scrutiny by the developing world’s research community. For example, close personal relationships between scientists and politicians are widely acknowledged to be more important for getting science into policy in the developing world than elsewhere. The implications need to be better understood to strengthen institutional relationships between the two sides.

Prioritising the challenges

But perhaps the report’s most useful information is the data from stakeholders. This provides both a snapshot of the current state of the science/policymaking interface in the developing world, and a number of important pointers to improving its effectiveness.

Asked about challenges in accessing scientific and technical information, the most commonly cited difficulty (identified, for example, by more than 60 per cent of respondents from sub-Saharan Africa) was insufficient information about the scientific and technological challenges facing countries. The next commonest problem was that information was out of date.

Stakeholders were also asked to rank obstacles to getting scientific information into development policymaking. Top of the list — identified by almost two-thirds of those surveyed — was a lack of understanding by policymakers and a lack of openness by politicians. Close behind, cited by 59 per cent, was poor dissemination of research findings.

Interestingly, when policymakers were asked what type of activities they find most useful in increasing their engagement with the research community, the most popular were opportunities to exchange opinions with scientists (cited by 67 per cent), followed by other forms of personal interaction.

When direct interaction is impossible, organisations such as SciDev.Net need to become intermediaries between scientists and policymakers. The study identifies the top priorities for web-based intermediaries. They are providing opinion articles written by experts on topics relevant to policy issues, followed by news stories about the way that other countries use science and technology to tackle development problems.

Ready to talk

Perhaps the most reassuring finding to emerge is that developing countries’ scientific communities are keen to become involved in policy discussions — and that policymakers seem willing to listen to them.

Respondents from developing countries, for example, were almost three times more likely to think that scientists should not just present research results to policymakers but also propose ways of integrating these results into policy, compared with their counterparts in the developed world.

Respondents in developing countries were also significantly more enthusiastic about the idea that increasing participation from a scientifically informed public will lead to improved development. Greater public engagement was seen as essential by 49 per cent of respondents in the developing world, compared to just 30 per cent of those in the North.

The full richness of the ODI’s data cannot be adequately summarised here. Those keen to know more are encouraged to consult the full report. But one thing is clear. Its conclusions underline the importance of bridging the science/development policy gap, and will help identify and prioritise many of the specific tasks that lie ahead.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net