Helping African science academies build policy clout

Science and technology house
Copyright: Esther Nakazi

Speed read

  • There is insufficient evidence-based policy in many developing nations
  • An initiative has boosted the advisory capacity of five African academies
  • Their influence has grown, but staffing and resource problems are still common

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They still lack the power of their Northern counterparts, but their influence is on the rise, says Turner Isoun.

All over the world, scientists complain that governments ignore scientific evidence. And not without reason: in every field, from drugs to climate change, policies are being developed with too little awareness of the evidence that could underpin better decisions.

But this problem is especially acute in the global South. This is partly because few developing countries have a national science academy with strong connections to government, as is the case in Northern nations. The National Academy of Sciences of the United States, for example, or the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, have long been trusted sources of policy advice. Where academies have been established in developing nations, they have been much less powerful than their Northern counterparts, and so easy for governments to ignore.

Between 2004 and early 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put US$20 million into trying to change that reality in Africa. The money (plus additional sums from other donors) was used to support the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI) in its aim to turn national academies into sustainable, effective sources of evidence-based advice.

ASADI’s experience is instructive for others who might follow a similar path. There are compelling reasons to do so. For one, Southern nations lack a dense web of policy institutions so their need for research-based policy evidence is especially acute.

Powering up

I chaired the final review of ASADI, undertaken by the InterAcademy Council, a group of science, medical and other scholarly academies that provides scientific advice to international bodies. [1] It found that the initiative had succeeded in its overall aim of improving capacity for evidence-based policy.

The five academies that received the bulk of support — in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda — had used ASADI to strengthen their own internal organisation, for example by hiring qualified managers and finance experts. But they had also increased their ability to influence the policy process. The review counted at least 29 such interventions — mainly consensus reports offering evidence on specific issues, commonly in health and sustainable development.

In most ASADI partner nations, governments and populations benefited from this. In Cameroon, for example, both the country’s National Programme on Food Security and a Food Fortification Programme backed by Unicef (the UN Children’s Fund) were informed by a consensus study of research into limiting river blindness, and by other studies on nutrition and health that its academy commissioned.

There are reputational benefits to back these tangible gains. An expert from Cameroon’s Institute of Agricultural Research for Development told our review team that the river blindness report shows that “good science can come out of Africa”.

Number 16 of the currently proposed Sustainable Development Goals calls for the building of “effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. ASADI has shown that active science academies are one step towards that goal.

Building effectiveness

But there is more to do. Although ASADI was a well-supported, long-term programme, science academies across the continent still tend to be small and risk being unsustainable.

To be empowered and effective, they need officers (especially high-level ones) who are motivated and trained to deal with governments, funders and other stakeholders. Candidates for this role are distinguished people with busy schedules. Although such time pressures are not unique to the global South, the rewards of being involved in a small, new academy may be less obvious than those associated with a leading role in a body such as the Royal Society.

It can also be hard for academies to hold on to or replace trained staff if they are based in capital cities and where there is a shortage of qualified middle managers, in many cases because academies cannot pay an attractive wage.

And resources taken for granted in richer nations may be less available in Africa. In my own country, Nigeria, ASADI bought generators for the science academy because an irregular electricity supply hindered its activities.

This investment has helped the academy to become an effective influence. In 2012, for example, it was asked by the charity Save the Children to assess breastfeeding in Nigeria because it was a respected source of evidence-based advice. This report was one input to legislation on the provision of workplace creches, and still influences discussions on maternity leave and national nutrition policy. [2]

Legal recognition and at least some government funding are essential steps towards building long-term stability and credibility for academies with government. Ethiopia’s government, for example, recognised the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences through legislation and has called it a national asset. This political status is important. The academy is now the only non-government body with a seat on the country’s Science and Technology Commission.

But it can be tricky for governments anywhere, and especially in the global South, to lend that kind of support. The money they pay to a science academy may not necessarily buy the advice they want to hear.

The next stage of the ASADI process will seek to address these issues. Called the African Science Academies Development Agenda (ASADA), it will be led from within Africa by the Network of African Science Academies made up of all 27 academies on the continent.

The aim is to build the network and national academies as sources of advice on a continental scale, to inform policy-relevant bodies such as the African Union. This is ambitious, but I believe it continues to support ASADI’s original worthwhile intention: to enhance the link between evidence and policy in Africa in ways that directly improve people’s lives.

Turner Isoun, a former science and technology minister of Nigeria, chaired the InterAcademy Council review of ASADI. Isoun can be contacted at isoun@aol.com. For queries about the review, contact Tom Arrison at the InterAcademy Council, tarrison@nas.edu


[1] Enhancing the capacity of African science academies: The final evaluation of ASADI (InterAcademy Council, 10 November 2014)
[2] Reducing maternal and infant mortality in Nigeria (The Nigerian Academy of Science, October 2009)