Does science advice fall on deaf ears?

Published online 14 March 2017

In the clamour for policy-makers’ attention, science advisers need a forum to be heard.

Pakinam Amer

Scientific input should be part of the political process. 
Scientific input should be part of the political process. 
The scope of science advice in this region is limited. The experience of many Arab governments does not extend beyond political leaders publicly associating with high-profile figures, such as Nobel laureates or prominent and established scientists, and occasionally seeking their opinion in matters related to education or health. 

Egypt, the most populous country in the region, has recently indicated a low tolerance for unsolicited science advice, even from the well informed. Essam Heggy, space scientist and former science adviser to interim president Adly Mansour was shunned by other scientists and officials when he spoke against a pseudo-scientific AIDS and Hepatitis C cure endorsed by the Egyptian army. Some state-sponsored media outlets even accused him of treason. 

Apart from popular figures such as the late Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American chemist and Nobel prize winner, and Farouk El-Baz, an influential NASA scientist, the country has had tense relationships with its scientists in the past few years. 

In many resource-poor countries, science itself is considered a luxury, and research is rarely geared towards risk management or sustainability, when there are bigger problems to tackle, such as failing infrastructure, poverty and unemployment. 

There’s no edict that says science advice is considered fundamental­­. But, it is precisely these problems – a lack of resources, poor economies, failing health sectors and unemployment – that could benefit from science-based policies. 

“This is exactly where you need science,” Flavia Schlegel, assistant director-general for natural sciences at the United States of America, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), told Nature Middle East.

According to Schlegel, all countries investing in science and technology innovation are by default also investing in sustainable development and economic progress. “It gives a country a very clear diagnosis of where they are (regarding) the development of their science and technology systems, where the gaps are, and the best leverage to further development.” 

Schlegel points out that for this approach to work, governments must not only empower the scientists “who tell the politicians what they want to hear”. 

Progress bolstered by science advice is determined by changing attitudes; not just of politicians, but of society, and is influenced by their level of trust in the knowledge that both natural and social sciences bring.

Ideally, science should inform policy across a spectrum of issues, including diplomacy, justice, defence, infrastructure, trade, resource management and environmental protection. 

This vision is what some Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan and leaders like Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society, and chair of the upcoming World Science Forum 2017, are trying to push for. 

El Hassan wants to build what she terms “functioning knowledge hierarchies” that can act as a backbone to governance, and she’s reaching out to several Arab countries in order to create these platforms. 

A meeting of similar minds

A leadership conference on science advice to governments in Jordan last December provided an overview of where the region stands when it comes to incorporating science into a policymaking framework and evaluating how far science is appreciated in such context. It brought together leaders in the realm of science, technology and innovation from eight Arab countries, along with veteran science advisers from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and UNESCO to discuss the role of science in decision-making in the Arab world, specifically regarding environmental challenges. 

“What should come out of this is a network of people from the region who could trust each other to start building [a science advice framework],” says Schlegel of this conference, and the planned World Science Forum. Engaging prime ministers and parliament in this process will ensure the dialogue will continue, she says.

The region needs more projects and networks on science diplomacy, says Cathy Campbell, CEO of CRDF Global, which promotes international scientific and technical collaboration through grants and training. “When you have disparities between countries in terms of economic strength and science infrastructure, I think science diplomacy is one way that the Arab nations could come together and help each other.”

For instance, to build infrastructure in a country like Syria, many decisions will be made by donors, but “hopefully the science community in the Arab world and in Syria itself, what remains of it, should be part of the decisions,” she says. 

There are many challenges, especially for countries in conflict whose resources and priorities are stretched after many of their scientists have fled.  “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” says Campbell. “One of the goals of science diplomacy is relationship building, and to keep doing it even when there’s conflict.”  

Scientists and public policy

Princess Sumaya is a proponent of formalizing science advice to governments. 
Princess Sumaya is a proponent of formalizing science advice to governments. 
The role of science advisers in policymaking is multidimensional, according to Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor to the prime minister of New Zealand, and chair of the International Network of Government Science Advice. 

Policy-makers have to make decisions in situations where there are multiple aims, limited information and clouded choices. The science is often complex and sometimes conflicts with societal values.

This is where science advisors have value, not just to offer technical advice but regulatory, and policy advice. Gluckman advocates parliamentarians and legislators make use of this type of science advisory, as well as executive branches of government.

But should the scientists and experts wait for governments to take the initiative? “I don’t think one should wait for the other,” says Schlegel. “I think scientists should make the case that they have something to contribute to policymaking, that they have knowledge and reflections that might be valuable. And politicians who want to listen to scientists’ advice should somehow reach out to scientists.”

But Schlegel believes that, regardless of who takes the first step, there is a need for a formalized system to streamline scientific input into the political process. 

Other experts agree that a formal structure is the only way to underpin science evidence, which is increasingly ignored. “It doesn’t seem to have much impact any more on the political debate,” William Colglazier, co-chair of the 10-member group of the UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism, and the editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy. “The politics on the short run certainly trumps science.”

He adds: “But most politicians know that if they totally ignore science, they do it at their peril. So if you get the right sort of structure in place, over time [scientists] can have an impact on a country.” Colglazier says that building an infrastructure requires “infiltrating” the government; getting more people with scientific background on the inside to provide the best available scientific information on an issue.

“Every country has to use its history, culture, and system to figure out how it all works together,” he says.