Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe has ample experience setting public policies and conducting scientific research. She was Uganda's vice president for nine years, simultaneously serving as its minister of agriculture. A medical doctor by training, she's now completing doctoral studies at Harvard University's School of Public Health.
A Well-Rounded Viewpoint
Strengthening the ability of African science academies to contribute to policy is a must, said Wandira-Kazibwe, speaking to reporters on Monday at the first annual international conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI), held in Nairobi, Kenya.
"...We are serious about what we as scientists want to do to make the lives of Africans better."
About 200 leading scientists and policy-makers, primarily from Africa, were on hand at the event. The initiative - supported by a $20 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by the U.S. National Academies - will be carried out over the next decade, focusing on efforts to improve human health in Africa. The theme of the conference is harnessing the scientific and technological capacity of African science academies to help government leaders across the continent fulfill their commitments to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals in areas such as maternal and child health, disease prevention, and the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. Participants are also exploring ways to engage broader communities of African scientists, engineers, and medical professionals in policy issues - and to build mutually beneficial relationships between these groups and government authorities in their countries.
It is a tall order, conference participants acknowledged. Many government leaders across Africa question the value of homegrown scientific advice, provide only marginal funding and other support, or are unsure of how to best tap their countries' scientific expertise. At the same time, academies need to shed their often elitist attitudes and seek ways to actively serve government and society in a structured, consistent manner, several speakers said. Academies also should improve how they communicate and present scientific information, making it more accessible and useful for politicians and the public. Africa's pipeline of scientists, engineers, and health care professionals has long operated below capacity because of inadequate education systems and the flight of talented scholars to the West.
But the time is ripe for ASADI, Wandira-Kazibwe said. In an increasingly global marketplace, both African researchers and policy-makers realize that science and technology can fuel socio-economic and public health advances -- as well as innovation to boost competitiveness.
"It is an initiative that is a result of the fact that science and technology are not peculiar to an individual or a country, but are international phenomena," she said. "That's why collaboration with the (U.S. National Academies) is the natural outcome."
On Monday, Wandira-Kazibwe recalled the frustration she felt as Uganda's agriculture minister when trying to create policies to tackle problems caused by water hyacinth in Lake Victoria, which is overseen by authorities in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. These plants clog waterways and provide habitats for mosquitoes and parasitic flatworms. The lake is a crucial source of income for fishermen and others. All of the affected nations had their own priorities, she said, making her job difficult. What was missing was authoritative, consensus-based advice from the scientific community.
"I believe that if we had had a regional arrangement of science academies, they would have sat, and then we, the regional ministers, would have been able to get evidence at the same time for us to be able to move. ...In real life, this is what science and technology can do -- if collectively handled to help decision-making that affects the local person in their everyday life."
-- Vaneé Vines, senior media relations officer, The U.S. National Academies.