What is required to build capacity for science advice in developing countries?

We are happy to begin a partnership with the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), an organization that has made great strides in understanding and changing the dynamics of science advice. This is particularly important in the developing world, where there is a continued need to strengthen both the “supply” and the “demand” sides of the science advice coin. Drawing on our experience and perspectives at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), I would like to underscore four key areas for action. These relate to individual capacity, organizational capacity, science communication skills, and the overall science and innovation ecosystem that supports science advice.

First, building capacity for providing science advice requires simultaneously building capacity for doing science. IDRC operates on the premise that local context and understanding matter here. Our recent experience demonstrates that, in collaboration with the international community, the best people to provide advice on stopping Ebola in Sierra Leone are scientists in Sierra Leone. If this is the case, then, in parallel to giving science advice, we need to continue to build capacity to do science.

For instance, IDRC supports programs such as the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) to develop the next generation of scientific experts. An AIMS graduate from Cameroon who is now a research scientist in microbial diseases at Yale University, has been helping Liberia’s Ministry of Health to support their policy decisions about health interventions to halt the spread of Ebola.

IDRC is helping early-career researchers transition into well-established scientists with enough visibility and recognition to broaden their sphere of impact. A new fellowships program will support advanced scholars and early career scientists, while another will focus on women scientists.

The second key area is the importance of the credibility and weight of the organizations in which individual scientists work and engage with a broader community. Along with supporting individual capacity, IDRC helps build credible and influential organizations at the local, national, and regional levels. It means bringing organizations together into research networks that accelerate the production of knowledge, such as the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network, composed of twelve research teams across more than 20 countries in the Global South. It also includes helping to build the sustainability and competence of “go to” local organizations that offer policy advice, such as the Academy of Science and Technology in Senegal, or cyber policy think tanks who work on thorny issues such as privacy rights posed by digital innovations.

Third, the ability of researchers to communicate science is critical. In addition to providing funds for research, IDRC routinely helps researchers in the developing world build capacity to effectively share their work through, for example, “write shops” or training to give clear, concise presentations.

We support several “knowledge translation platforms” that help convey scientific advice more clearly to governments, with insights from studies, such as one by a Research Chair at Makerere University in Uganda on 11 platforms in African countries that aim to improve health outcomes. We also enable researchers to engage with policymakers at a high level by helping them become “honest brokers” of their work. In 2015, for example, we supported African climate scientists to participate in the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris as experts informing national delegations.

Finally, the ability to provide effective science advice to governments needs to operate within an effective science and innovation system. Building individual and organizational scientific capacity is insufficient if the overall system, the key players, and the linkages between them are weak. IDRC aims to support and connect the many pieces of this ecosystem, on both the “supply” and the “demand” sides for science and science advice.

Science granting councils are key actors. Governments must be able to fund priorities that matter to them and reap the rewards of this research. Many countries have recently set up national research funding organizations. IDRC, South Africa’s National Research Foundation, and the UK’s DFID recently initiated the Science Granting Councils Initiative in sub-Saharan Africa. This will help to improve the capacity of these organizations in up to 16 countries to manage research, design and monitor research using robust indicators, transfer knowledge to the private sector, and collaborate with other science system actors.

As Canada prepares to co-host the annual Global Research Council Meeting next May, IDRC will play a key role in advancing the theme of capacity-building among granting councils worldwide.

INGSA is a central part of the global science system, with a key role to play in helping people understand the science advice context and bringing the right people together. In the years to come, IDRC looks forward to working with INGSA to strengthen the way scientists connect with policymakers to address the tough problems facing the developing world.

Naser Faruqui is Director, Technology and Innovation, at the International Development Research Centre.