SDGs could boost citizen science in Africa

African citizen science.jpg
Copyright: Brian Sokol / Panos

Speed read

  • SDGs offer chance to shape science agenda to meet needs of people
  • Citizen engagement would benefit women, who research often ignores
  • Governments must act on engagement to avoid ‘feedback fatigue’

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[MANCHESTER] The Sustainable Development Goals are a chance for Africa to give citizens a say in shaping local science activity and the innovations that follow from it, a UK conference has heard.

The explosion of science initiatives now taking place across the continent in the wake of the SDGs means local people need a say in what research is being done, according to a panel yesterday at the EuroScience Open Forum. This is particularly important to ensure Africa’s research agenda supports wellbeing and healthy growth on the continent, the conference heard.

“The SDGs can be a beacon for innovation in the way research programmes are designed to include the people who are meant to benefit,” said Elizabeth Pollitzer, the director of Portia, an organisation that supports women in science. “The goals have created a renewed interest in research among the development community.”

“This should make it easy for African researchers to connect with a population already interested in science.”

Elizabeth Pollitzer, Portia

Consulting ordinary citizens on what science should be done and how it should be applied would especially benefit women, the conference heard. This is because women are often not involved in research projects and rarely get a chance to voice their needs, according to the panellists.

One example is car design, where things like crash test dummies are typically based on male weights and proportions. As a result of leaving them out of the design process, women are 47 per cent more likely to be injured in car crashes than men, Pollitzer explained.

The move to get laywomen involved in science is part of a broader move in the science community towards responsible research and innovation — a concept that puts research’s impact on wider society first.

But doing this means governments must also get more involved with science, especially in developing countries, where information channels between people and politicians are often poor, the conference heard. Kathrin Bimesdörfer, an analyst at Germany’s Institute for Organisational Communication, said governments often fail to apply citizen feedback on science, preferring to file it away for “future consultation”.

“This is a problem,” she said. “It creates fatigue among the public if their engagement is not taken up.”

The conference heard that Africa has an advantage over other continents in citizen engagement, because there are many funders and non governmental organisations on the continent that specialise in giving ordinary people a voice. Pollitzer said these NGOs should push harder for laypeople to play a role in the science aspects of Africa’s Agenda 2063 development plan and the Continental education strategy for Africa 2016-2025.

“This should make it easy for African researchers to connect with a population already interested in science,” she said.