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Linda Nordling suggests ways to sustain the popularity of the first South African science forum.
Last month, scientists, policymakers and journalists from across Africa gathered in Pretoria, South Africa, to attend the inaugural Science Forum South Africa (SFSA).
The event, touted as Africa’s first ‘open science’ event welcomed over 1,500 delegates to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) International Convention Centre on 8-9 December.
Attendance exceeded all expectations, with a lack of seating meaning that latecomers had to stand during the opening session. The organiser, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) of South Africa, says it will host another event around the same time in 2016.
In the long term it will attempt to be for Africa what gatherings such as the biennial EuroScience Open Forum is for Europe, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting for the United States, according to the DST.
“As science conferences go, the forum was a lively affair.”
But to live up to this ambition, and keep the punters coming year after year, the organisers will have to up their game. Here are some things they could try.
For starters, the next forum will have to offer delegates — and especially journalists attending the event — more genuinely new science.
Many famous South African scientists attended SFSA. But none of them chose to present new and exciting research findings at the event.
That may not be so strange given that the SFSA as a platform is young and untested. Most scientists, especially those with an international reputation, choose to reveal their best results at international conferences.
Nevertheless, for future events, the DST should try to secure some previously unannounced research results that are both scientifically significant and interesting.
A good start would be to publish rigorous studies performed by, say, the CSIR focusing on timely South African or African challenges such as climate change or disease outbreaks.
This would entice journalists, who turned out in force at the first SFSA, to continually patronise it. By contrast, the prospect of listening to African dignitaries talking about the importance of science might not seem so exciting the second time around.
Future alterations of the forum should also be a bit braver in how it gets delegates to talk and interact with each other.
As science conferences go, the forum was a lively affair. Each presentation and session included time at the end for questions and comments from the audience. There was also plenty of lively discussions in the corridors and halls outside the formal session halls, between and often also during sessions.
However, as so often happens, the public comment part of discussions often turned out rushed and curtailed by time-sensitive moderators.
A few discussions, including the popular one concerning the need or not to ‘decolonise’ African knowledge, could have benefited from a longer and more innovative session format.
Indeed, such discussions could easily stretch to several hours, and why not? As long as the delegates are happy to invest that much time in a topic that interests them.
The agenda should be tailor-made to suit the different types of delegates attending. Press briefings should be held in the morning, so journalists are able to meet afternoon deadlines.
Traditional moderated sessions featuring expert presentations and debates should be mixed with more inclusive, and possibly lengthier, discussions where the topic requires it.
Another important discussion to make space for is science policy. This might not be the sexiest topic on the agenda, but it is a vital link between science and society.
“There were some good discussions at the forum about how to make evidence-based policymaking. However, many of the voices talking about these topics did not come from Africa.”
Science policy requires communication between different groups of people — scientists, politicians, business leaders, non-governmental organisations and society at large — to come up with good results.
There were some good discussions at the forum about how to make evidence-based policymaking. However, many of the voices talking about these topics did not come from Africa.
While we can learn from international best practice, future discussions need to be more grounded in African experience and contexts.
But scientists should also be able to use the forum to air challenges facing them in their day-to-day lives.
After all, a forum such as this is not just a good time for the South African DST to show off local talent, but also for those who make science policy in the country to listen to their stakeholders.
These are just some ideas for how the forum’s organiser can build on the energy generated at the first forum to generate long-term success.
The inaugural event showed that there was an unmet need for this kind of debate, both within the scientific community and in wider society.
If the forum does not need to find a bigger home in a couple of years, it will have failed to reach its potential.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.