Q&A: A science advice network for francophone countries

Science researchers
A busy scientific research laboratory in West Africa. A new science advisory network for French-speaking countries has been launched to enable researchers across the francophone world share ideas and best practice. Copyright: US Army Africa, (CC BY 2.0)

Speed read

  • COVID-19 has accelerated the need to link politicians and academics
  • Francophone advice network launched by incoming INGSA president
  • A permanent scientific council would to help policymakers in each country

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A leading science policy group has launched a science advisory network for French-speaking countries, enabling researchers across the francophone world to share ideas and best practice.

The francophone science advice network was launched at the 4th International Conference on Science Advice to Governments this week (31 August to 1 September), organised by the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA).

The architect of the new network is Rémi Quirion, the incoming head of INGSA and the chief scientist of Quebec. He talks to SciDev.Net about his vision for the French-speaking network and discusses his priorities at the head of INGSA.

What is the francophone Scientific Advisory Network that you are launching today (2 September)?

It’s about working more together, learning from each other. It is a question of seeing what is being done in different countries around the world, among chief scientists and academics, in order to share best practice in terms of scientific advice, or to better prepare for a next pandemic.

How did the idea come about?

When INGSA was created in 2014 in New Zealand, I was one of the founding members and the only French speaker in the leadership. The network has grown a lot in recent years, but in a more Anglo-Saxon fashion. So I said to myself that I could focus on French-speaking Africa, to try to increase scientific advisory capacities in these countries.

We held a workshop in Cameroon on scientific advice two years ago and we had another in Senegal. So there is a lot of interest for Quebec in working with French-speaking African countries to improve or facilitate scientific advice and learn from each other.

The pandemic has increased the importance of having such a network. In Canada, as part of the Commonwealth, there were a lot of pandemic-related discussions and meetings with scientific advisory experts from England, Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, etc. But, we did not have such an organization at the level of French-speaking countries. So, we saw that there was a certain lack in terms of the exchange of best practices in scientific advice in the French-speaking world. We therefore decided to create a francophone network.

What is the point of this network right now?

The meeting that INGSA has just organized in Montreal was certainly a great opportunity to launch this network. The other reason is the pandemic. We needed scientific advice before the pandemic, but it has reinforced the point that we need it to exchange best practices in terms of scientific advice. The pandemic has added urgency to all of this and what we would like is for us to be better prepared, even when we are not in an emergency.

What is the state of science advice in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa at the moment?

We did a study initially and the report will be published soon. We have looked at the majority of African countries of course, but also at France, Switzerland, and Belgium.

We organized a virtual workshop in February with representatives from the different countries, to see if they would find it useful. I was very pleasantly surprised at the interest from officials and others who said they needed it to help their governments make decisions based on evidence and science.

In countries where there was a slightly stronger scientific advice system, it was a little easier in terms of managing the pandemic. This shows that having a permanent scientific advice structure can help our governments. Now it’s up to us to work together to demonstrate to politicians even more that this can be very useful.

How will the network be implemented in practice?

We want to try to have structures, programs that will facilitate this link, these exchanges between academic experts and politicians. Training of academics will be necessary to see how to discuss with a politician, how to discuss with a civil servant. [As scientists] we are used to presenting very detailed results, very substantial and long reports. However, the politician expects shorter things.

What did you think of the fact that practically all African countries established a scientific committee to advise on COVID-19 vaccination

That’s great, but we want to go a little further than that to have a more permanent structure with a core team that develops very good links with governments. So, for example, to decide on vaccines, vaccine experts are added to this team. If you need to give advice on earthquakes, you add geological experts, etc. Basically, the idea is to have a stable structure.

You were made the head of INGSA yesterday (1 September) What will be the major challenges of your mandate?

In addition to strengthening collaboration between French-speaking countries in relation to the English-speaking world, my other major objective is the development of scientific advice at different levels of government. Scientific advice is different depending on whether you are at the level of the United Nations, at the level of a country, at the level of a region of a country, at the level of a city, etc.

So, more and more, we are realizing that scientific advice at the local level is very important. However, it is less developed. So we must try to develop it further because the problems and the day-to-day difficulties are at the city level. It is therefore a question of building scientific advice at the local level, because the type of advice that we give must be very concrete when we are in towns and villages.

In your advocacy for the use of scientific evidence in policy decisions, is there a section devoted to encouraging scientists from French-speaking Africa to popularise the results of their work?

This is a challenge everywhere. It is certain that the majority of researchers, whether in Canada or elsewhere, work towards scientific publications; but, thereafter, there is little emphasis placed on the transference of knowledge – to know how to transfer this information to our fellow citizens, how to also engage elected officials and governments in all of this.

It comes down to [not only] evaluating scientific publications in a researcher’s career, but also [evaluating] scientific advisory activities, liaison activities with governments. This already exists, but more needs to be done.

Again, I think the pandemic has helped us on that side, because there are more and more researchers who are interested in popularizing and explaining their research more clearly.

Shouldn’t we first of all try to resolve the problem of the many researchers in French-speaking Africa who find it difficult to publish their work because scientific journals publishing in French are rare?

What we are trying to do here in Quebec, and we will be able to open up more to our colleagues from French-speaking Africa, is to start giving prizes for publications in French in major sectors such as the social sciences and the humanities, health, engineering, pure sciences. In addition, we financially support certain French-language magazines which are either Quebecois or French.

I think that we have to work together and for that, we will need the francophone community of Africa to say, ‘of course, we know that we have to publish in English, but also we want to be able to publish more in French in good quality journals’. And now, with everything called open access to publications and open science, it should be a little easier. We in Quebec, via the INGSA network, will try to help improve the quality of French-language journals and provide opportunities for authors from all French-speaking countries around the world to publish in those journals.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa French desk. This translated interview has been edited for brevity and clarify.