Science, meet policy. Now shake hands.

Mention the word policy and many scientists instinctively reach for their gun.

The world of the scientist and that of the policymaker—particularly the politician—are frequently seen as two conflicting environments.

The face of the first: dominated by a common search for scientific truths and decision-making through consensus. The image of the second: half-truths, competing agendas, imperfect compromises and the creation of restrictive bureaucracies.

The reality is that science needs policymakers as much as policymakers, particularly in the modern world, need science.

The obvious reason is financial. Modern science is generally accepted as a public good—an activity that benefits all members of society, rather than selective groups—and as a result something that should be supported from the public purse.
For this to happen, politicians need to be persuaded of the value of science and allocate funds accordingly in the face of many competing demands.

Just providing the financial resources that science needs to prosper is not enough to ensure that it provides appropriate benefits to society in return. If it was, the former Soviet Union, with its massive but relatively unproductive investment in scientific and technological infrastructure might still be around today.

Equally important is the need to ensure that all social institutions that interact with science and technology in some way do so in a coherent and supportive manner.

These include the universities and other institutions of higher education that produce both scientific knowledge and the individuals who will turn this knowledge into socially useful products. Just as important are industrial companies—particularly small and medium-size enterprises—where this transformation will take place.

Each of these institutions operates under its own set of rules, laws and government decisions. Any government seeking to maximise the social and economic benefits of science and technology needs to ensure that (at least as far as research is concerned) these institutions operate in a coherent way. This usually means establishing a single framework for the rules, laws and decisions that have an important influence on research and development. In other words, creating a Research & Development (R&D) policy.

A key need for Africa

The need for such coherence was highlighted last week in a report coming from a relatively unexpected direction, namely Botswana. A report conducted by the United Nations Development Programme under the title Harnessing Science and Technology for Human Development pointed out that Botswana, one of the strongest economics in Southern Africa, possessed many of the essential components of a thriving knowledge economy.

Yet the lack of an adequate policy framework, ensuring that the different elements operated in a mutually supportive way, meant that science and technology in Botswana were not meeting their full social and economic potential.

Judged in terms of resources alone, Botswana might be considered relatively well off, certainly by African standards. It has a good investment in information and communications technology, cutting-edge research equipment in its universities and a cadre of postgraduate students who have received high-level training in foreign universities.

But according to the report, a lack of focus in funding as well as other factors means that the country’s scientific institutions have “failed to deliver” with the result that Botswana is “involved in neither science and technology innovation, nor its diffusion, in any significant manner”.

Botswana is not unique. Elsewhere in Africa, the disparate elements of a science system continue to operate despite the decline in financial support of the past two decades. Reversing this decline has fortunately once again become a political priority. The need for an extra $9-billion over the next 10 years to promote capacity building in science and technology in African universities, for example, was identified as a priority in the recent report of the Commission for Africa, and is expected to figure in the Group of Eight meeting of the world’s leading industrialised nations in July.

But the problem will not be solved either by throwing money at it or by treating universities (or any other science-related institution) in an isolated way. What is required in every case is a coherent R&D policy that can both give individual actions a strategic significance, and provide such actions with a framework within which their effectiveness can be assessed.—SciDev.Net

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