Conspicuous absences at global science advice meeting

Science Advice to Governments_Flickr_International Council for Science
Copyright: Flickr/International Council for Science

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Last week I flew to Auckland, New Zealand, to cover the Science Advice to Governments conference, a gathering of scientists and science advisors from nearly 50 countries.

The conference explored how scientists should convey knowledge to policymakers, and what obstacles stand in their way. Discussions ranged from how to provide scientific input during humanitarian emergencies to how a country can effectively build science capacity.

“This is the biggest group of real practitioners of the art of science advice” to ever gather in one place, said Peter Gluckman, the conference leader and chief science advisor to New Zealand’s prime minister.

But some participants questioned whether the conference, held at an upmarket Auckland hotel, adequately represented the global scientific community.

Almost none of the conference participants were young, for example, and the first panel discussion consisted entirely of men.

“It did dawn on me, when I looked at the first panel, that it was incredibly male — in fact it was only male — and I think we should have done better,” Steven Wilson, executive director of the International Council for Science (ICSU), told me during a coffee break.

Jacqueline McGlade, the UN Environment Programme’s science chief, was more direct. “Every time you put a panel together,” she complained, “it’s like an old boys’ network.”

There were a number of delegates from Asia and Latin America at the Auckland event, but that was little consolation for Fola D. Babalola, a Nigerian forestry researcher at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“I look at the program for the two days. I can’t really see the presence of Africa!” he told the conference in a question-and-answer session.

Ditto for China, noted Yonglong Lu of the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences in Beijing.

A speaker from Tazmania pointed out that yet another group was under-represented: politicians. How, he wondered, could a conference about scientific advice to governments not include them? (Gluckman replied to say that he had invited New Zealand politicians, but they were busy campaigning for an upcoming election.) 

McGlade said the gaps in representation at scientific conferences were, unfortunately, symptomatic of a wider problem. Although it would be beneficial to society to bring more young people from developing countries into the scientific community, they often have trouble breaking in because the “old boys’ network” is too quick to “discount” their work, which tends to explore new paradigms and use interdisciplinary approaches that challenge the status quo.
A version of this article first appeared on SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia and Pacific edition.

Editor's Note: In personal communication with SciDev.Net, the conference organisers have said that they tried to ensure a good gender balance as well as significant representation of delegates from developing countries and professional representation ‘’beyond a narrow practitioner-only basis’’. Conference organiser, James Wilsdon, said 15 of the 200 delegates were from African countries, and 13 other developing countries outside Africa were represented. There were female keynote speakers and an all-female panel, he added. The conference’s online programme indicates that women accounted for less than a quarter of its 35 scheduled speakers and panellists.