African scientists must step out and speak up if they want to add value

Scientists do science to improve society. Africa’s challenges are a golden opportunity to demonstrate its value. Shutterstock

Many universities in Africa require their research students to include a set of policy recommendations at the end of their theses before they can graduate. And many of us researchers are in the habit of highlighting the policy issues that our research speaks to when we develop our proposals. But the question remains: do these research findings ever find the ear of an actual living policy maker?

The notion of science advice to government has gained worldwide prominence in recent times. Clear evidence of this growing popularity was evident at a recent conference in Brussels. Registration had to be closed when the number of participants topped 600. 71 countries were represented.

The skills that scientists need to engage better with policy actors was one of the key points of discussion. The typical scientist will tell you they have neither the desire nor the stomach for navigating the messy arena of policy making. They expect someone else to make the link between their science and policy. But whom?

The necessity for scientists to engage with policy is nowhere more urgent than in Africa. The continent is faced with a multitude of complex, seemingly insurmountable social and economic problems. In the absence of locally generated evidence, policy makers are bound to transplant solutions from elsewhere. More often than not, they are led by the whims of political leaders looking to score easy points with their electorates.

Because of meagre local funding, researchers have had to find funding externally. This has the effect of a large part of research energy in Africa going towards externally set agendas. Researchers are not engaged with locally relevant problems, and as such may not be able to contribute to the policy making process. Even if the research was relevant, researchers do not understand the policy making process itself, nor do politicians understand the science.

That said, policy makers appear to somehow get by without much input from researchers. This puts the burden on researchers to make the first move. It is abundantly clear to us that a lot of the current solutions do not and cannot work. By reaching out, perhaps more decisions made for our societies will be more firmly grounded in evidence.

Stepping outside the walls of academia

Making the change will take two things on our part. The first is a change in attitude towards the policy making process. The second involves obtaining the skills to productively engage with that process.

Many scientists do science to improve society. If we want to have an impact on our societies we need to step outside the walls of academia and really seek to understand the reality that many of our fellow citizens inhabit. This is where we need to apply our knowledge and skills to investigate the roots of our many challenges.

The second step is to equip ourselves with an understanding of the policy making process. A big part of our reluctance to engage with policy springs from our assumptions about politics. We see politics as dirty and populated by people who cannot grasp our research, or by individuals who might not even care to.

Yet there are many other places to start and politicians, although important, need not be the first port of call. Engagement, however, must be a two-way process. This suggests that we as scientists can take a break from being listened to and listen as well. It is for this reason that I tend to have a problem with the term “science advice”, since it communicates some kind of hierarchy. I prefer instead to think of it as simply engagement.

Engagement need not be a huge investment

The recognition that researchers need to take their place as leaders in their own societies has resulted in various initiatives across the African continent. I have been involved in the African Science Leadership Programme offered by the University of Pretoria. I have also participated in the Advanced Research Design Programme offered by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research in Nairobi.

Both programmes seek to equip participants with the skills necessary to navigate the policy landscape. One of the surprising things participants discover is that engagement need not be a huge investment. It can range from the occasional newspaper opinion article, to attending a public engagement event in one’s area of expertise, to full-scale research partnerships with communities.

The Nairobi programme specifically equips participants with the skills to design research for the complex perennial challenges that our societies face. This necessitates close engagement with affected communities. It also calls for a multi-method approach to research to arrive at the root causes of these challenges.

Missed opportunities everywhere

The call for researchers to engage with policy is very urgent. As a recent migrant to the world outside academia, I see missed opportunities everywhere. For instance, not long after I made the decision to be a more engaged researcher, I went to the Uganda Ministry of Education. When I asked to be put in touch with the research department, however, I was told there was no such department. Apparently they contract consultants to fulfil this role whenever the need arises.

They do have a department of data and statistics, and regularly publish reports containing all this data in simple graphic form. However, they are clearly not asking the important questions about the system on a continuous basis. This is a clear opportunity for a researcher like myself to create mutually beneficial linkages.

The second missed opportunity was revealed to me during a WhatsApp group discussion. It’s composed of the old boys and girls of my high school, many by now holding influential positions in government and the private sector. After yet another forward advertising the services of a traditional healer, we asked the medics on the forum to weigh in about the veracity of the claims that these individuals make.

However, these highly placed professionals, with their impressive research records, admitted that very little was known about these medicines. The best they could do in the circumstances was simply discourage their patients from using them. Their view was it was up to the traditional healers to prove the efficacy of their own medicines.

I found this attitude quite puzzling given that my medic friends were the ones with the scientific research training. And yet they expected largely unschooled traditional healers to meet the standards of scientific proof. In the meantime the belief that all these medicines are harmful and pagan continues to go unchallenged, and their benefits go to waste.

A large proportion of the population has these healers as their first port of call. So why are there so few centres of native medicine on the continent?

It is up to researchers to get heard

These and many other such societal challenges are a golden opportunity to demonstrate the value that research can have. It is true that researchers face a big challenge of funding. However, those that hold the purse strings often have many people clamouring for their attention. It is time we entered the mix.

My belief is that a closer working relationship with policy makers is bound to demonstrate the value that evidence can bring to the policy making process. This in turn can result in a greater value being placed on research as an important part of this process. Perhaps this will even lead to more government level research funding.

As a nice bonus, we just might contribute to making life on the continent better. It only requires us to step out and engage.