During both our careers, we have had the privilege of teaching students, advising Prime Ministers and making friends for life within the pillars of the global science establishment. We wear many hats, from addressing domestic and international challenges around how science feeds-in to policy-making that impacts the daily lives of every man, woman and child, to helping steer the large, union-style membership organisations that act as the voice of researchers across the world. Examples include vaccination and immunisations, tackling pollution in our cities and advising on legal and illicit drug use. These ‘life and death’ issues have resonance for countries worldwide. Yet, our day-to-day interactions were always flanked by awareness of progress in other countries and amongst those were valuable relationships with the South African science system. Indeed, the International Network for Government Science Advice’s (INGSA) first training school was held in South Africa. As a leader in pan-African policy innovation, South Africa gets the importance of scientific evidence to support laws meeting the nation and its citizens’ needs. That said, we have always questioned why the voice of African scientists is not nearly heard enough by policymakers inside Africa, as in most places in the world. This must change.
We have shared multiple platforms with South African leaders and intellectuals. Usually, this is in Europe or America. The creation of Science Forum South Africa (www.sfsa.co.za/) has been a real game-changer and eye-opener for so many. Now, we can come to you! This week’s 7th edition has not been dampened at all by the pandemic with over 2500 pre-registrations. It is a remarkable feat by Minister Blade Nzimande and his team. In fact, the hybrid panels with free, open access on the Internet are democratising science like never before. We have all been impressed by the carrier-wave effect SFSA has had in igniting conversations about science, society, education, youth, innovation and diplomacy across Africa. South Africa is leading the way in promoting the critical importance of education and scientific litteracy for all. Seeing African Union Ambassadors, EU officials, the talking heads of your Academies of Science, National Advisory Councils and hundreds of youth representatives, in particular, all jockying for seats at the Council for Science and Industrial Research’s convention center in Pretoria is something truly magical to behold.
South African scientists are in global demand too. Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle’s appointment as Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences at UNESCO or Dr Albert S. van Jaarsveld’s appointment as Director General and CEO of the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, are just two of many examples. I (Sir Peter Gluckman) have also recently replaced Prof. Daya Reddy as President of the Paris-based International Science Council and Professors Quarraisha and Salim Abdool Karim are such respected scientists for social justice, flying the South African flag with devotion and humility. Cape Town’s hosting of World Science Forum 2022 and other international recognitions showcase how South Africa’s scientific reputation is on the rise.
If COVID-19 is the 9/11 moment for global science advice, what needs to happen next?
We, and the tens of thousands of members we represent, are strong believers in the value of independent science advice in complex decision making. These are issues where scientific evidence and public or political values do not necessarily align. For those who believe wholeheartedly in evidence and the integrity of science, the past two-years have been challenging. Information, correct and incorrect, can spread like a virus. We are certainly at a turning point, not just in this pandemic, but in our collective management of longer-term challenges affecting us all.
That is why our discussion at SFSA from 9h00 on Thursday 2nd December (also free to view post-event) is so timely. Moderated by Professor Himla Soodyall, CEO of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), this high-level panel brings together politicians, chief science advisors, presidents of science advisory bodies and science diplomats from five continents to examine how scientific advice feeds into effective policymaking, or not. Our premise is that if the 9/11 attacks changed all our lives from the perspective of state security, then Covid-19 must leave a similar legacy for the future of globally robust policymaking as a shared public good. Or must we be prepared to accept the dumbing-down of ‘evidence’ and a ‘snapback to normal’ in our post-pandemic politics?
We will argue that the importance of open science and access to data has never been more critical and we will spell-out what is really at stake in the relationship between science and policymaking, both during crises and within our daily lives. From the air we breathe, the food we eat and the cars we drive, to the medical treatments or vaccines we take, and the education we provide to children, this relationship, and the decisions it can influence, matter immensely. It is much more than a philosophical debate.
To begin, the panel will unpick how science and politics share common features. Both operate at the boundaries of knowledge and uncertainty, but approach problems differently. Scientists constantly question and challenge our assumptions, searching for empiric evidence to determine the best options. In contrast, politicians are most often guided by the (short-term) needs or demands of voters and by ideology. When this necessitates ‘not needing experts’ or ‘we are following expert advice’ mantrasthe lines may become blurred. The panel will argue that this pandemic has brought to the fore a third force. What is changing is that most grass-roots citizens are no longer ill-informed and passive bystanders. They want to have their voices heard and are rightfully demanding greater transparency and accountability. This brings the complex contradictions between evidence and ideology into the public eye like never before.
On the upside, rapid scientific advances in managing the pandemic are generating enormous public interest in evidence-based decision making. Practically every country has a new, much followed advisory body. Many scientists have become public celebrities too. That said, does this carrier-wave for citizen engagement with science and the tremendous opportunities to advance the status of science and research funding (ZAR trillions being poured in), not risk being derailed by the real threat of science and scientists being viewed as a political force? What does the playbook of science advisory systems teach us?
In addition, speakers representing diverse continental views will examine the pandemic’s legacy as not just a disease, but as an exemplifier of humanity’s inhumanities and interdependences. From vaccine equity and the starkly highlighted fault-lines between rich and poor countries, the strength of international cooperation continues to be tested. (President Cyril Ramaphosa’s comments about the Omicron variant flight bans into South Africa leaves nothing to the imagination on that subject). What is, however, clear is that societies worldwide both profess intolerance for ‘inequality’, while providing and even sometimes cherishing the legal and social settings that legitimatises it. From last year’s blanket ban on alcohol and tobacco sales during lockdown in South Africa to today’s anti-vaccination riots across Europe or North America, the panel will tackle thorny questions around how civil liberties, taxation, jobs, sectoral interests and culture all come into play.
Looking forward, we will also try to map-out what reformed or new regional or global facilities and institutions might be needed, where and why? Should we defenders and loyal gatekeepers of the scientific status-quo put our hands up and lead the charge to out the most gross failures in our global advisory systems? Is the WHO up for root and branch reform? Should the ‘S’ in UNESCO be set apart and new global capacities dreamt up and created? What role do we science brokers play in reshaping the world of work, utterly transformed by digital technologies and artificial intelligence? Is the ‘profession’ of evidence-based policymaking itself in the riflescope?
Our collective aim at SFSA is to weigh-up how lawmakers must navigate between the rights and responsibilities of individuals to look after themselves and the rights and responsibilities of states to look after their citizens, provide security and a milieu in which to live a satisfying life. Further issues accentuated by the pandemic will be debated such as concepts of democracy and the rule of law, the influence of religious views and the pressing need for the acceptance of global public goods to be universally applied. While aiming to uncover points of agreement and potential disagreement in equal measure, the panel’s shared goal is to help build and elevate open and ongoing public and policy dialogue about the role of robust evidence in sound policy making.
Will South Africa embrace its scientific reputation-rise to the benefit of the continent?
With circa fifty ministers, eleven official languages and a dizying array of public, private and civil society influencers, its easy to see how South Africa’s elected representatives have particularly challenging roles. Policy-making is ultimately about choices between options that involve different tradeoffs affecting different stakeholders in different ways. It is entirely proper that in choosing between possbile options, policy-makers weigh up societal and political values – fiscal, diplomatic, ideological and religious, to name but a few – and they will always have an imminent electoral risk in mind. But science has a critical role in providing the understandings that will underpin those policy choices.
People’s worldviews are too-often reinforced by the information bubbles they now live in, which means that many only listen to people and media whose views align with their own inherent biases and ideologies. People want categorical answers. Science can rarely provide them. And social media and other non-neutral media can be effectively used to manipulate opinion, often by claiming ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ even when they are neither facts nor truths. Such manipulation not only undermines democracy, but also undermines society’s ability to use knowledge to make progress. There is always a danger that even the best available science can be ignored in such an environment. When that happens, it is more likely that policy outcomes will not serve the citizen well.
But, as expectations on policy processes grow, science and robust evidence have increasingly essential roles to play. Science has multiple disciplines defined by a set of processes designed to find as-reliable-as-possible knowledge about the world within and beyond us. When used to inform the policy-maker and the citizen, science can identify what options really exist and what are the likley consequences of each. Of course, science is always provisional, but that should not be an excuse for ignoring it. Nor should it be dismissed simply because it does not fit with prior biases or fixed views. But science can reduce the heat in values-laden debates that can otherwise be drowned in polemical rhetoric and assist decision-makers to work through complex and seemingly irresolvable issues.
One of the most difficult areas of public policy is, for example, harm reduction science, aimed at reducing the adverse health, social and economic consequences of the use of legal and illegal psychoactive drugs. What we often see is that the science will be cherry-picked or intepretted to advance opposing arguments whether you are on the side of the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘quit or die’ or support ‘greater empathy for addicted persons’. Civil society and industry actors are well drilled in this. In turn, this can reinforce firm convictions about the validity or otherwise of the science.
For example, the harm from smoking tobacco is well understood. 75% of smokers may die from related diseases. South Africa is losing circa 1000 citizens a week. It is universally accepted that smoking kills. But when it come to vaping, the science is still evolving, hence the diificult policy debates worldwide. Vaping clearly reduces exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. And any reduction in carcinogen exposure is clearly beneficial to the individual. On the other hand, some argue that it may create a gateway to smoking. The long term safety of some of the chemcials used in vaping systems is unclear. The variety of vaping systems creates further uncertainties. Regulation is needed. Policy dilemmas are apparent. Yet, there remain too many unknowns that only truly independent science can resolve. Another example is the importance of vaccinations and immunisations. Yet the ‘anti-vax’ movement seems impossible to eradicate – it is supported by false science, rejected by every robust health authority and scientific academy, and yet is promoted by celebrities and other non-experts. There are side effects to vaccination but the societal sense of precaution and risk assessment has balanced those risks as being small in relation to the consequences of pandemic illnesses vaccination is designed to eradicate. But for the policy-makers having to weigh up such decisions, scientific support and evalutaion is essential.
Our fundamental belief is that science alone cannot decide on such matters. ‘Evidence’ is one among many types of advice that inform the decision-making process. Above all, the meaning of risk varies. Risk to a politican is very different to that of a citizen. Key determinants such as information selection, confirmation bias, polarisation etc. require greater understanding and attention. Others include ethical values, cultures, politics and the impact any decision can have on other areas of policy. How to balance risk and precaution is a recurrent theme for politicans and the leaders of their national science systems. That said, the scientific community must stand behind its evidence and shout up when policy-makers clearly get it wrong.
The interaction betwen science, societal values, concepts of risk and precaution and politics pervade every aspect of a democratic society. Whether it is dealing with climate change, artifical intelligence or tackling COVID-19, in every case both the natural and social sciences working together have an importent role to play. Better decisons are more likely when science is properly used. We as Presidents of the International Network for Government Science Advice and the International Science Council will never be moved from defending that. In recent years, South Africa has understood and is embracing this too. The sense of shared confidence apparent in this year’s opening panels at SFSA are infectious. The parallel reputation-rise of South African science has been impressive to see. 56 million South Africans and 1.2 billion Africans have a stake in this continuing.
Check INGSA out at: www.globalscienceadvice.org/
Check ISC out at: https://council.science