Science and Research in the Public Interest – the Role of National Academies of Science

By 10 November 2016

National academies of science are a central actor in any country’s knowledge sector. When they are well-resourced and well-managed, they play an important role in helping to translate evidence into policy-ready advice for government. They are sometimes neglected by scientists but they should be seen as an important tool in thinking about the quality, national importance and implementation of public policy because they bring together the best minds on a subject and turn that into policy advice.

Some time ago I attended a workshop with the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) – to discuss ideas and options for a greater role of AIPI in the Indonesian knowledge sector. AIPI was established by the Government of Indonesia in 1991. For several years its role was relatively neglected due to limited resources.  Over the last four to five years, however, the Indonesian government has been very active in finding ways to strengthen the role and capacity of AIPI so that it can fulfil its primary mandate as science advisor to the nation.

Ahead of the workshop, the President of AIPI, Professor Sangkot Marzuki, asked me to conduct a review of how academies in other countries provide science advice. His aim was to ensure that the discussion about AIPI would consider and include international experiences and approaches of academies around the world.

I looked at the websites of 18 organisations that provide science advice, most of them academies but some royal societies, after the British model. I spoke to staff and academy members in Indonesia, Canada, the US and Australia. The review is published online: Reflections on Academies and Science Advice.

Here I summarise the key points which I shared with Professor Sangkot Marzuki and colleagues at AIPI:

  • There is a convergence of approaches amongst academies around the provision of advice through expert panels which are responsible for mapping and reviewing the existing evidence around specific research topics or policy areas and for providing advice and recommendations to their governments based on that review on what research areas to invest in.
  • Academies can run into controversy because they address topics that are sensitive but of central importance such as right-to-die legislation, immunization, etc.
  • Academies are increasingly involved in communicating not only to their governments around research investment but also in trying to ensure the public has access to the best possible evidence. As a result, they are spending more time and effort on communicating their findings to the public.
  • To ensure the integrity of their findings, academies are scrupulous in ensuring the independence of their panels and in ensuring that a wide variety of views is included in the panel. I came across one case where an academy lost that reputation for independence; it took years to recover that reputation.
  • Academies are increasingly supporting the development of Young Academies to encourage young scientists to pursue a career in research and contribute to national development. They are doing this through a range of support, sometimes financial, often through mentoring in joint studies. In Indonesia, for example, the SAINS45 initiative involved, the collaboration of AIPI with a team of young scientists and culminated in a proposal for a national research agenda for Indonesia. Finally,
  • When countries invest little in science, their scientists tend to contribute their knowledge and experience to other countries, or not at all, resulting in a knowledge deficit at home. Canada and Indonesia share this challenge. In undervaluing the potential of their academies, both are making it much harder to bring evidence to bear on public policy.

The review I conducted for AIPI has helped me understand more deeply the important role that academies and royal societies play in supporting science in the public interest. In providing rigorous evidence on issues of national importance, academies and royal societies ensure that governments have the best information available to inform public policy. They are a key actor in the knowledge sector of any country. No academy can ensure that a government heeds its advice, but by presenting the evidence and making it known to the wider society, it expands policy horizons and opens platforms for public debate and indeed legal challenges in some cases. No knowledge sector in any country is complete without a well-functioning and suitably supported national academy or royal society.

The National Academy of Sciences in Indonesia is building its momentum as science advisor to the nation. It has fostered the creation of two sister institutions to support its mandate, the Indonesian Science Fund which has already launched research competitions; and in order to support young scientists to build a career in Indonesia it led the creation in May 2015 of the Indonesian Academy of Young Scientists. The Academy has been asked by the Government to prepare white papers on research and higher education, further raising its profile. Through SAINS45, the Indonesian Science Agenda, the Academy has launched a consultative process on the role of science in addressing critical issues that face the nation. Building on that profile AIPI can strengthen its consultations with both the community and the Government.

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