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Should African governments be following the trend in appointing chief scientific advisors, asks Linda Nordling.

When Sir David King announced he was stepping down as the UK government's chief scientific advisor at the end of 2007, he is said to have received an unusual offer. Paul Kagame, Rwanda's pro-science president, allegedly offered King a job doing the same thing — in Kigali.

If he did, the offer was declined, because today King directs the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford, UK.

Had King accepted the job, he would have cut an unusual figure in Africa. Few, if any, of the continent's governments employ a chief scientific advisor. Yet a recent editorial in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS) urged the country's new cabinet, appointed by president Jacob Zuma last month (May), to appoint a chief scientist.

In developed countries, scientific advisors are popular. The UK has one in almost every government department, in addition to the chief scientist, who advises the prime minister. They are also found in Australia and the United States, and New Zealand appointed its first chief scientist last month.

The chief scientific advisor's role is not to be a specialist on any particular issue, but to be a conduit between the science community and policymakers. They also often act as government spokespersons on scientific issues.

Extravagance or investment?

A full time chief scientific advisor may seem like an extravagant expense for cash-strapped African governments. Instead, many African governments and their leaders gather advice from informal networks of scientists — be they university staff, members of science academies or scientists appointed within government.

In many cases, African governments leave the task of collecting scientific advice to their science ministries or national science agencies.

But either of these options has its drawbacks. Science ministries are often small and may not have the resources or connections to effectively inform and influence policymaking in other departments.

The SAJS editorial complained that in the past 15 years, the country's science ministry has failed to reach beyond its own ministerial walls (see New South African minister will put science centre stage).

An exception is, ironically, Rwanda, where since 2006 the science minister has been placed within the president's office, from where cross-departmental issues can be addressed (see Rwanda's president creates a new science ministry).

National science agencies also often have limited access to government discussions. They rely on ministers' and presidents' willingness and ability to identify where scientific advice could help — and to ask for it.

This can be problematic. In Uganda, the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) has a science advisory role. But, according to the council's deputy executive secretary, Maxwell Otim, overlaps in ministries' roles and responsibilities can sometimes make it unclear who should approach the council for advice.

One solution, says Otim, would be to strengthen the UNCST's position, making the council more proactive in advising the government.

But a chief scientific advisor would perhaps be even better placed to identify policy areas in need of scientific advice. "He would have the ear of the president — and be his ear," says a science policy expert who did not wish to be named.

Heed the advice

Whatever the choice of science advisory system, it will only work if the government is willing to listen to the advice it is given.

In South Africa, the government stands accused of ignoring scientists' warnings about a looming water crisis. The issue came to a head in November last year when Anthony Turton, a water scientist at the government-funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was suspended before he could deliver a lecture attacking government policies.

The story dominated the front pages of South African newspapers, with both scientists and nongovernmental organisations labelling Turton's suspension an "attempted silencing" and calling for his reinstatement (see Petition launched for suspended South African water expert). Turton ended up leaving his post voluntarily.

As Africa develops, we are likely to hear more such stories. The odds are that even governments that today wax lyrical about their commitment to evidence-based policy will someday make the wrong choice between what is right and what is easy.

Such stories erode the public's trust in their governments and could, at worst, translate into lost elections.

By employing chief scientific advisors, and encouraging them to speak their mind, Africa's presidents could save themselves some of that trouble — if only they promise to listen.

Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.

[It has been brought to our attention that while Sir David has not relocated to Kigali, he nevertheless holds the title of 'adviser to President Kagame of Rwanda' from his base in Oxford - Ed]