Advancing science, advancing partnerships – but of what kinds?

19 February 2018

I’ve just spent a fascinating few days in Austin, Texas at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting – a vast annual jamboree that attracts upwards of 5,000 scientists, science journalists and policymakers from across the US and across the world. I was part of a prominent UK delegation convened by the nascent UKRI and led by its new Chief Executive, Sir Mark Walport, seeking to build the UK’s role and identity – in a time of Brexit - as both a place of great science and an outward-looking science partner.

Melissa Leach and her fellow panel speakers at the AAAS annual meeting conference

(Left to right: Melissa Leach, Rob Bertram, Sir Mark Walport and Berhanu Abegaz)

The meeting covered subjects as diverse as quantum physics and astronomy, space station labs and genetic medicine, to artificial intelligence, crop science, earthquake prediction and the modelling of migration flows. Natural sciences dominate, though not exclusively. A small social science stream has tackled topics like obesity and inequality, and social networks in disaster management. But the most interesting social questions here are embedded in cross-cutting themes and subtexts around scientific values, communication and trust, and collaboration and partnerships.

Defending ‘good science’ in a post-truth world

A palpable feeling was one of science under threat in a so-called ‘post truth’ world of discredited expertise, in Trump’s US and beyond. Sessions debated how to tackle climate change denial, or the media and public ‘myths’ that support vaccine hesitancy. The importance of scientific method as the route to truth is being reasserted, and the need for such science to be impeccably robust, and ‘good’. For Sir Mark Walport and the head of the US National Science Foundation, France Cordoba, speaking togther in a well-attended panel, the central feature of good science is its reproducibility – if the investigation is repeated by another person, the same results are obtained. Notwithstanding the narrowness of this definition and the challenge one might bring that ‘context matters’, there has been valuable reflection on how exaggeration from small samples, poor research design, misaligned incentives, political pressures (or rarely, wickedness) can work against this, and so produce bad science. Others have turned the same arguments round to project a confidence in science; the community is robust, working well, uses sound methods, surveys show that publics generally trust scientists to tell the truth (far more than politicians or footballers, anyway)  – and truth will prevail, even as the political and funding climate becomes more hostile.

Science in and for global development – broadening perspectives and capacities

But what is ‘good science’? And what does it take to do it? The UKRI panel I spoke on ‘building research capacity as a critical component of international development’ framed scientific value rather differently, as science that contributes to positive development outcomes and progressive change. As Sir Mark Walport emphasised in his introduction, this is also an area of UK leadership, boosted in recent years through ODA funding to research in schemes like the Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). As my own talk emphasised, the science we now need to address complex global development challenges needs some other features, beyond robust scientific method and reproducibility: it must be problem-focused; interdisciplinary, involving social sciences as central not just as add-ons; transdisciplinary, involving governments, civil society organisations and citizens in co-design and co-delivery; and globally-attuned, yet locally grounded. Effective engagement of local communities and their knowledge and practices – in all their diversity – is often central. Many of these features are captured in our IDS ‘engaged excellence’ approach. They draw on longstanding development research traditions – including the participatory approaches pioneered decades ago by Robert Chambers and others. In different ways, they have been embodied in our Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform, and Anthropogenic Dark Earths project, the examples used for illustration.

These themes of interdisciplinary and policy engagement capacity were also picked up by my co-speakers. Rob Bertram, Chief Scientific Advisor on global food security in USAID, brought a development agency perspective, showing how USAID seeks impact from all that it does, including in his focal areas of tackling extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition. While much focus is on technical interventions for instance in crop breeding, social and gender issues are critical too. Capacity-strengthening is needed not just in research, but in leadership, policy and practice engagement, and regulatory capacity.

Berhanu Abegaz, ex Director of the African Academy of Sciences, gave a powerful African perspective emphasising the need for investment in formal science education. African countries house 15% of the world’s population and by the end of the century, perhaps half the world’s children. Yet Africa currently has only 1% of the world’s research capacity. Building formal educational skills and training scientists has to be a development priority to meet the promise of inclusive economic futures, in which science, technology and innovation have key roles to play. Investment in career-building for women scientists is key, since while they comprise about a third of African undergraduates, proportions lessen dramatically up the ladder to leadership positions.

These are undoubtedly priorities. And yet as our work in the STEPS Centre show, innovation for development must be bottom-up as well as top-down, and can often draw on the grassroots knowledge and capabilities of citizens, farmers and small entrepreneurs. Both the informal and the formal have key roles to play, and tackling development challenges effectively often depends on aligning and integrating these.

Building partnerships

All this requires partnerships – whether between scientists and societal actors; scientists and community members; people and institutions in different countries; or those from different types of organisation, background and discipline. Partnerships across radical boundaries are hardest to develop and sustain, but ultimately most rewarding. Our panel’s discussion emphasised some key ingredients for good partnerships in global development science, including equity, trust, patience, humility, acknowledging and challenging power relations, and building interpersonal as well as intellectual relationships.

Berhanu also challenged us to address the fundamental inequity in scientific collaborations between UK/European and African institutions, it is almost always the northern institution that leads. The mechanisms and politics of science collaboration and funding need to shift so that over time the proportion of projects led by African researchers increases. The Agenda Setting and Funding Platform of the African Academy of Sciences is one amongst several initiatives aiming to promote this. Meanwhile UK funding mechanisms such as the GCRF lag behind.

The importance of partnerships also came through strongly in panels on science for the Sustainable Development Goals. As organisations like the International Council for Science and Future Earth argue, delivering on all 17 goals as an integrated package will require an unprecedented level of collaboration between scientists and policymakers from different organisations, disciplines, and at local, national and global levels. The challenge is that this is not just a mammoth task of co-ordination, but also of avoiding power play in the competitive space that ‘science for the SDGs’ is becoming.

Yet while some of us debated partnerships in science for development, many AAAS participants were discussing and indeed actively forging other sorts of partnership – between national science agencies and their funding agendas, and between institutions collaborating on ‘big science’ infrastructures – whether for astronomy, space exploration or nuclear fusion. The aims, and the notions of what good science is and who it is for, may be different here – but I suspect that some of the key ingredients of effective partnering are the same. Partnerships and collaboration in science are always and increasingly important, but they are also both personal and political. Meanwhile, international openness in science – a big feature of the debates and atmosphere at AAAS – is surely a valuable counterpoint to the nationalism and closing-down we are seeing in so many other arenas of global politics. Long may it continue.

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