SCIENCE & SOCIETY
Turning Science-Based Guidance
African Scientists and Policymakers Meet to Discuss Policy Challenges Related to Food Security
In the 1990s, more than a quarter of the people in Cameroon, West Africa, suffered from goiters -- an enlargement of the thyroid gland caused by iodine deficiency that can become a massive swelling around the neck. By assembling detailed evidence of the extent of the problem, Cameroonian scientist Daniel Lantum and his colleagues convinced the nation's public health and commerce officials to mandate salt iodization. As iodization in Cameroon jumped from zero to 90 percent, the prevalence of goiter among the population dropped to around 5 percent today.
As Lantum explained to the audience of scientists and policymakers gathered this past November in Cameroon's capital for the second annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI), the goiter reduction effort worked in part because there were people with scientific backgrounds in the government as well as concerned scientists and champions of the cause in the community. It was also important that the researchers compiled evidence to support their case and sought cooperation from industry as well as government ministers.
ASADI aims to build the capacity of African science academies to achieve similar success stories in their nations through a more formal process of bringing together scientific brainpower to sift through the research and generate evidence-based guidance to policymakers on what can be done. Supported by a $20 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by the U.S. National Academies, the initiative also seeks to foster a deeper appreciation among African policymakers for decision-making that is based on evidence and impartial analyses.
The conference offered an opportunity for academy scientists, government officials, journalists, and others to share their perspectives as they discussed the role of science in addressing food security. About one-third of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lacks the food necessary to meet daily requirements, a 2005 United Nations study found. Though none would disagree with the goal of ending malnutrition, the ways to do it raise many thorny scientific issues, such as the role that biotechnology may play.
All too often, researchers are doing their own thing, while government ministries do theirs, Kweku Owusu Baah, chief director of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, told conference attendees. His ministry's relationship with the scientific community is often "a firefighting relationship" -- officials call on scientists to give information and advice only when they immediately need data on a subject at hand.
The government and academy representatives discussed several strategies to build relationships between the scientific and policy communities. It can be difficult given obstacles such as electoral turnover among politicians, a paucity of funding for scientific research and publishing, and unwillingness to challenge cultural or social factors that may impede acceptance of new scientific evidence. But, the participants agreed, scientists can help governments understand the value of impartial, evidence-based guidance in formulating policies by dispensing with jargon and striving to explain research in clear terms that communicate the advantages both to the public and to the policymakers.
Scientists also must actively demonstrate the value of such guidance. That is what the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) is hoping to achieve through a comprehensive review of scientific evidence about nutritional influences on human immunity. HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis present serious, immediate challenges to the nation, and studies provide a wealth of data on the interactions between these pathogens and nutritional status. However, sequestered in scientific journals, these findings remain unknown or incomprehensible to policymakers and the broader public.
The project's ultimate goal is to determine whether the evidence shows a need for changes in the South Africa's nutritional guidelines or for new nutritional guidance for people infected by HIV or tuberculosis, explained ASSAf member Barry Mendelow, a professor of pathology with the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg and chair of the study. The scientists hope to present a final, peer-reviewed study to government ministers this year.
More information about the ASADI conference and initiative is available online at <national-academies.org/asadi>. Senegal's academy will host the 2007 conference in Dakar.
-- Christine Stencel