6 global challenges and factors of success for science advice

capacity building, access to accurate information, and efforts that aim to break silos and build interdisciplinary collaboration could help increase the use of evidence for policy and development. Photo by Jen Collins
Capacity building, access to accurate information, and efforts that aim to break silos and build interdisciplinary collaboration could help increase the use of evidence for policy and development. Photo by Jen Collins

By Yulye Jessica Romo Ramos, SciDev.Net.

Jessica contributed this article as part of our call for blogposts on conference themes. Submit your blogpost: http://bit.ly/1yyo1P2

This blog is based on research I have been conducting since 2011 on behalf of SciDev.Net — a global media NGO specialising in science and development communication.

The aim of my research is to understand enabling contexts that would allow science and technology (S&T) to have a positive impact on equitable and sustainable development and poverty reduction.

To date, we have engaged with around 5,000 professionals around the world from the following sectors: policy, development, media, academia, research and business. All reports are available online here.

Our research has uncovered the following issues:

1)      An enabling political environment: it is common, particularly in the developing world, to find political environments that are not particularly open or inclusive, and where spaces for science advice are limited or based on personal contacts and influence. A lack of formal opportunities to engage with policymakers is a key issue, but also an area of opportunity. Creating ministries of science and science advisory roles is generally seen as a good step forward. However, broader opportunities to participate are still lacking, and a lack of transparency and accountability remains a problem.

2)     Overcoming capacity building deficiencies and general reluctance: many researchers feel apprehensive about providing policy advice, and some believe their independence and reputations might be at risk. Most will not know how to engage with policymakers — for example the language and dynamics of policy are significantly different to that of the research sector. They might not be competent in developing policy recommendations based on their research findings or including the socio-economic implications of evidence — an important issue for policymakers. Training in these areas is therefore very important, as is making sure that the scientific community remains independent and trustworthy.

3)     Encourage multidisciplinary research and innovative partnerships to maximise evidence use: in many cases multidisciplinary approaches to research will be needed in order to effectively address policy issues. For example, health prevention needs to involve hard sciences to understand diseases, but also social sciences to help better tailor efforts to affect behavioural change. Unfortunately multidisciplinary research is not a common practice, and needs to be encouraged.

Innovative partnerships for science communication could be used by the scientific community. For example, NGOs could help contextualise findings and give insights about a particular group; and media organisations could help ensure wide reach which can create public interest and uptake. However, most research outputs are published in traditional channels (scientific journals) which, can be difficult for non-specialist audiences to understand and can be hard to access. Science journalists often complain that researchers — particularly female researchers — are rarely available for comment or that they use jargon-heavy language that is impenetrable for those outside the scientific community. This clearly needs to change.

4)     Beware of international influence: people we talked to, in the developing world in particular, felt that research is mainly driven by foreign funds, and in some cases the perception is that it does not match national priorities particularly well. Understanding international trends is key to ensuring funding — for example, writing bids with a strong focus on gender or climate change is seen as advantageous. Some researchers also criticise internationally acclaimed journals for refraining from publishing certain pieces due to their relative low global relevance (such as tropical diseases). All of this is important when we consider that policymakers in the developed world tend to favour developed world sources. Organisations such as the Planet Earth Institute and their partners have discussed how to develop trusted journals in Africa that could fill the gap (see more here).

5)     Developing trustworthy and reliable sources of evidence: for policymakers it is important to approach sources that are seen as trustworthy and credible. Think-tanks, strong research organisations and similar sources are often lacking in the developing world but should be developed.

6)     Understanding scientific uncertainty and increasing public agency: non-specialist audiences tend to confuse and use scientific uncertainty to avoid taking action. For example, certain policymakers and media articles would refer to climate change as an area that is not yet fully proven — citing uncertainties in some modelling scenarios or dissident voices to argue their case — despite there being an international consensus around this topic. The agency of the public is key here: they have the right to access accurate information which can be a powerful tool for civic participation and increased accountability.

Overall, it would appear that the main barriers and opportunities for building effective science advice lie within the policy context. As long as lobbying and other powerful stakeholders dominate the policymaking process, it will be difficult to mainstream and increase the use of evidence for policy and development.

Increasing the agency of the scientific community and other key stakeholders — such as potential partners and the public in general — is a challenge, but capacity building, access to accurate information, and efforts that aim to break silos and build interdisciplinary collaboration could advance the cause.

Yulye Jessica Romo Ramos works for SciDev.Net as Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) Coordinator. She does original research, strategic reviews and capacity building for the organisation in order to increase performance and learning – helping raise SciDev.Net’s profile via the M&E structure. She has work experience in the private, public and third sector – both in the developing and industrialised world. Jessica has a BA in international studies and an MSc in development and environmental issues, with a particular specialisation in participatory and M&E methods for governance and development models. Click here for more on her work and publications.