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Science academies in the developing world must engage with the real world if they want to influence policy.

Think of a 'science academy' and what quickly comes to mind is a club of elderly academics — usually all men — who sit behind closed doors discussing the latest research from scientific journals. If they occasionally break off, it is merely to decide who should be elected to their select company.

The picture is, of course, a caricature. Many scientific academies, particularly in the developed world, are increasingly interacting with governments on science-related issues, and encouraging public debates around them. For some, such as the US National Academy of Sciences, these have long been key activities.

But all too often, the image of science academies as elite institutions remains uncomfortably close to the truth.

Sadly this remains particularly true in many parts of the developing world. Indeed, it is often the countries that most need a vibrant and engaged scientific community that suffer academic isolation inherited from a colonialist legacy.

Strong opportunities

As two meetings last month demonstrated, the opportunities for science academies to promote economic and social development — acting as key intermediaries between the worlds of knowledge and power — have never been stronger.

One was the 25th anniversary meeting of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, held in Mexico City. Many speakers described how TWAS has raised the recognition and status of science in the South (see 'TWAS — torch bearer for science in the developing world').

The second was a two-day meeting at the Royal Society, London, on how African science academies can help improve the impact of government policies on the continent. It was organised by the African Science Academy Development Initiative, a project backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Both meetings highlighted the importance of science academies in convincing governments to invest in science for development. "Scientists are at the centre of the knowledge economy, so they should be at the centre of development strategies," said a Kenyan participant in London.

More enlightened decisions

The meetings also emphasised how academies can, at least in principle, encourage governments to make more enlightened decisions. In particular they can help ensure that policies draw on clear scientific evidence, especially where purely political choices may lead in a different direction.

For example, an influential report by the Academy of Science of South Africa is widely credited with helping shift public attitudes towards the use of dietary supplements to treat HIV/AIDS.

The London meeting suggested that the research community in general — and academies in particular — could help policymakers address key issues, from the safety of genetically modified crops to identifying whether a country's health priorities match those of agencies supporting medical research.

Making an impact

But if academies' potential role is clear, the way to achieve it remains cloudy. Skills and resources are one priority. Participants in both meetings emphasised that academies are relatively small institutions that jealously guard their independence from government — and are therefore only as effective as those who run them.

Academies require administrative staff that can run committees smoothly if they wish to make a significant impact on policymaking. They also need staff that can effectively communicate committees' recommendations to both policymakers and, through the media, the general public — in language that non-experts can easily understand.

But those who run the academies must also be willing to engage pro-actively with the outside world themselves, however uncomfortable they may find it.

And the policymaking community must reciprocate this willingness. Politicians and other decision-makers should see scientists not as a lobby group pursuing their own agenda, but as sources of timely and useful advice that addresses real political choices.

Academies can do much to help themselves. The more they cling to their traditional roles, the more they will be seen as self-interested institutions and ignored by governments.

Conversely, the more that academies show they want to engage with the real world — listening to what it has to say, and displaying the modesty to admit they do not have all the solutions — the more policymakers are likely to see them as active and constructive partners.

Once this happens — and science academies commit to eliminating their elitist, image — the resources they need to enhance their role will almost inevitably increase in direct proportion to their perceived value to society.

Academies have nothing to fear but themselves.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

Updated 2 December 2008