Policy advice ‘poses challenge’ for Africa academies

Delegates at the 2007 ASADI conference Copyright: National Academies of Science, US

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Africa’s science academies are engaging more with policymakers, but this entails further challenges, heard delegates at the third African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI) conference in Dakar, Senegal, this week (November 12–15).

There is a risk that policymakers could expect more than small academies, struggling with poor Internet access and staff shortages, have the capacity to provide, warned David Mbah of the Cameroon Academy of Sciences.

Mbah singled out the Cameroon, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda academies as having significantly improved communication with policymakers and taxpayers since the ASADI began in 2005.

But he noted that these ”intensive brainstorming sessions” with government officials had not yet yielded concrete results.

Senegal’s minister of scientific research, Yaye Kène Gassama Dia, said academies should prioritise issues most relevant to the public. Last year’s ASADI conference focused on food security. This year’s conference focuses on ways to combat disease by providing clean water and sanitation.

Narciso Matos, director of Mozambique’s Foundation for Community Development, noted in his keynote address that clean water would help achieve five of the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals aimed at slashing poverty.

Academies of science are bodies made up of eminent scientists, but their activities differ from country to country.

The Nigerian, South African and Ugandan academies are undergoing an intensive decade-long restructuring, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to enable them to provide neutral advice on politically-charged science issues — much like the US-based National Academies of Science through which the Gates funding is channelled. The Academy of Science of South Africa, for example, recently produced a report on HIV, TB and nutrition (see Improved nutrition ‘cannot replace HIV or TB drugs’).

The conference forms part of the restructuring process.

Other partners have since joined the effort to modernise Africa’s academies and their activities. Eve Ogbhemhe of the UK-based Royal Society confirmed to SciDev.Net that they will be partnering with the Ghana and Tanzania academies to help capacity strengthening efforts.

Howard Alper, visiting executive at Canada’s International Development Research Centre, announced that they were working with the Royal Society of Canada and the Senegalese Academy, led by Souleymane Niang, to implement evidence-based studies and public awareness of science programmes.