Global priorities, local context: a governance challenge

Stakeholders' views in Asia–Pacific can be at odds with global priorities Copyright: Piyaporn Wong

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A consultation with science policy stakeholders in Asia–Pacific throws up tensions between research priorities that link to science governance.

SciDev.Net has launched a series of reports on lessons emerging from the ways that science is communicated in countries around the world.

This is not only of interest to those of us working as communication professionals. Much of the series of reports should be of interest to those who pay for or conduct research, and the groups that might use it — frequently, we see that research uptake is linked to fundamental issues around the governance of science.

The first of these reports is the result of consultations with stakeholder groups for science policy in four countries in the South East Asia and Pacific region. [1]

The participants reflected a diversity of political orientations and professional interests. Civil society groups such as nongovernmental organisations were better represented than the public sector, but the sample of participants across the countries was a reasonable representation of those who might conduct and use research.  

What is striking about the report is the way that local context surfaces repeatedly, through differences in priorities and perspectives from nation to nation. Just as striking is that key concepts in the international sustainable development agenda were contested. One group even argued that the term ‘development’ has a different meaning in their national context to what is often understood in the international agencies that fund aid.

Global priorities take precedence

This is a not an unfamiliar scenario. A recent meeting I attended to review the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) funding of research in ‘third countries’ was consumed with what some national partners in recipient countries felt was a lack of scope to mobilise around national priorities.

Of specific relevance here, Ben Ponia, writing in an article as part of a Spotlight on ocean science, also refers to the cleavage between national and international priorities for sustainable development and its impact in the Cook Islands.

The rebuttal to this contestation of global priorities is that we are dealing with problems without boundaries — and we underestimate the scale and nature of their consequences at our collective peril. As global citizens, the research and policy communities have an obligation to collaborate and deliver — so arguing for national priorities seems irrelevant.

But ignoring these differences in priorities can undermine the feasibility of solutions that do transcend borders. What we can learn from experience and research in other sectors, such as governance in development, shows not only that this kind of discussion matters, but also that it can be constructive.

National views shape perspective

It is worth examining the logic that suggests that once we acknowledge that a problem is transnational, we are driven to mobilise with the ‘global collective’. The reality is that one’s perspective on a problem determines how it is understood. As the author Anaïs Nin said, "We see things not as they are but as we are."  

In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, Anna Schmidt of the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom conducted a study of how the mainstream press covered the efforts to rescue the global economy, and discovered that different countries had different media narratives about what was driving the crisis. [2] Significantly, they also had different ideas about which agencies had the power and credibility to address the problem.

In science, we might come to some truth about the drivers of a problem, but it does not mean there is consensus on the best point of entry or the agencies best placed to effect change. For example, take the international debate on climate justice that followed the scientific consensus on the impact of man-made greenhouse gases.

Lack of capacity

There is another constraint that exercises ‘local’ scientists working with ‘international’ priorities — lack of resources.

While financing from international agencies covers a number of programme costs, many developing countries just do not have enough researchers and are often forced to make unpalatable trade-offs.

A Jamaican researcher told me recently that public officials there had concluded that making their economic and social system sustainable required a widespread and coordinated programme to mobilise nearly every available research resource on the island. In most developing countries this is impossible in the current funding environment.  

Ben Ponia’s story speaks of similar anxieties about professional resource management in the Cook Islands. Poverty can undermine the public sector’s capacity to practise sound, democratic policymaking, as national consensus on priorities is routinely overturned.

Governance and citizenship for science

Global governance of scientific research can learn from efforts to improve democratic practice in the context of poverty, which has been an ongoing concern for those designing and running governance programmes for international development for the past 40 years.

An overarching lesson from democracy support programmes is that we do not always get public goods, such as health or education, simply by granting rights as part of citizenship. It also requires learning through action for communities and institutions alike.  

More importantly, dialogue matters. Consultative and participatory processes for defining priorities and allocating resources in government, practised in several countries, suggest that having a discussion about values makes for more palatable collaboration — even where the resulting priorities are contested.  

What this implies for global research programmes is that to realise the obligations of global citizenship for science, like delivering on climate change or zoonotic disease, means going beyond granting opportunities for funding to researchers.

In the case of zoonotic diseases, science-based strategies to prevent a pandemic need to engage with local livelihoods, cultures and geography (in the case of bird flu, for example, small-scale poultry farms as high-risk settings). None of these three factors are easily dismissed since they can impact on development outcomes for local communities.

So much like citizens and states, the scientific community and its funders need to learn to dialogue around expectations and values so they deliver research priorities — and programmes — that are both scientifically sound and democratically palatable.

Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net


[1] Romo Ramos, Y. J. South East Asia and the Pacific Focus Group Report [2MB] (SciDev.Net, 2012)

[2] Schmidt, A. From crisis management to institutional reform [701kB]. In Focus Policy Briefing Issue 07, Institute of Development Studies (2009)