Science and Technology

Do policy makers truly understand the role of science and technology in development? Do they understand the work of agricultural scientists? In the developed world, it is agricultural research whose output is translated into extension messages that farmers can understand and utilize. Research takes many years to yield results, get published in peer reviewed international journals which policy makers have no access to. There is no problem with publishing to make a name for oneself. We just would like to request that such findings find their way into the national development arena where they can have positive impact on food productivity and enhancement people’s livelihoods.

I just came back from the first BIO-EARN/Vicres scientific conference in Uganda where I gave a key note speech entitled: “What do policy makers need to be convinced that research matters?”
It was a great meeting, of agricultural scientists from the East African region, sharing experiences from their on-going research work that ultimately aims at harmonizing the bio-resources of the region to improve the food security situation for the citizens of the region. Inevitably the issue of the biotechnology controversy came up but in this editorial, I will steer clear of that as it tends to mar the useful suggestions that came up during the discussions that followed my presentation.

BIO-EARN refers to the Eastern Africa Regional Programme and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development while Vicres is the associated network – Lake Victoria Research. This conference in Uganda was the first of its kind to bring the two programs together.
In reference to linkage to other stakeholders, Prof. Chacha Nyaigotti – Chacha, the Executive Secretary of the Inter- University Council, which partly hosts these research programs urged scientists to get out of their cocoons and create linkages with policy makers and farmers whom we purport to work for.

Policy makers operate at various levels: some are professionals in areas where they work while others are not. For example, if a country is lucky, it will have an agricultural scientist as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and if not, just about any political appointee will be put there.
So long as communities remained dormant, policy makers had no responsibility or obligation to use evidence-based decision making. Now, however, communities are more aware, more socialized, and more demanding of decision makers. This forces decision makers to stay in tune with what is going on within the scientific community both locally and internationally.

The Government policy maker needs to realize very quickly that policy makers can no longer ignore science and technology. They do this at their own peril. Policy makers should view scientists as a necessary and value adding ally.  Just because they may not understand what scientists do does not mean they should ignore them.  On the other hand, scientists should not assume they are understood by anyone other than themselves. Brain wise, scientists are amongst the cream of society, spend years and hours of hard work researching on issues, and making discoveries which benefit humanity without most users being aware of how all this came about.  

Yet, scientists often think they do not have to explain themselves. But in fact they must explain themselves; they must make their case and must justify their existence.
Many times, scientists do not agree on the particular data set to move to policy makers and often, they are unable to simplify the information or to package it in a user friendly format. Often, the potential users and even communicators are brought into the game at the tail end of it and cannot therefore be expected to grasp all the pertinent issues.

Most research projects do not have a budget line for dissemination and only think of this after the fact. Scientists take time to act; the process itself is long drawn while, policy makers often want  results “today” or “tomorrow”. These are many which are context specific!

Whatever the case or context, ways must be found to ensure inclusion of all stakeholders to understand that much as these collaborative processes may take long, the benefits are far reaching. It is important for everyone to feel that he/she has been adequately involved.

The farmer → scientist → policy maker → consumer →donor linkage is critical while the involvement of the media and the private sector in these debates is increasingly viewed as vital.
We all need each other if we hope to make a difference in poor people’s lives. 

By Ruth Oniang'o, Editor-in-Chief

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