A roadmap for science-led policymaking

Published online 20 May 2012

Scientific research can be a driving force for development, but proper processes need to be implemented to ensure policymakers get the best scientific advice.

Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb

The average Egyptian gives little thought to the importance of scientific research and development – and until recently its role was not given priority by governments forming policy. There are many Egyptian researchers and research institutes spread across the country, but for the past six decades, the government and policymakers paid no attention to their work. Meanwhile, the majority of scientists were not interested in policymaking. The two only interacted on issues related to regulation of universities, and even then the focus was purely on administrative issues.

The recent creation of the Supreme Council for Science and Technology marks a recognition by the government that science should affect policy-making. The council comprises a number of eminent Egyptian scientists and government ministers and is chaired by the prime minister. Its brief is to provide the government with sound scientific advice and to inform policymakers.

But despite having existed for at least two years, the council's effectiveness at influencing policy is still unclear. It has managed to communicate the government's needs to scientists, but failed to engage scientists in decisions leading to the creation of policy. The council has created a top down effect. As it currently stands, different ministries, such as industry, agriculture and water resources, indicate their needs to the ministry of scientific research. The ministry, in turn, offers funding grants for potential research to meet these needs.

Such exchange between the different ministries and the ministry of scientific research, however, does not require the presence of a council in the first place. Furthermore, it is unclear how each ministry will use the research conducted.

This might be considered as partial policy setting but only for the ministry of scientific research and not throughout the government. Finally, it is not clear if such coordination has been conducted with a view to the future. Do the needs put forward by the ministries represent only current problems or do they include a future vision of how policy should be developing as well?

My understanding of the influence of science on policymaking should be divided into two main categories.

Scientists should interact with policymakers to help set future goals and work on achieving them.

Firstly, focus on current issues and needs of different sectors should include clear mechanisms for the best use of research and these goals should be clearly stated from the outset. A review of calls for proposals released by the ministry of scientific research in the past two years reveals the simplistic approach used, with very general topics like "water research" followed by a list of a few technologies required such as "manufacturing of reverse osmosis membranes". No further details are given. Such a crude approach - with no clear technical specifications provided nor a roadmap for applications – is short-sighted. Such issues must be addressed in future calls for proposals.

Secondly, scientists should interact with policymakers to help set future goals and work on achieving them. For example, "providing 20% of fresh water needs from seawater by 2025" could be set as a national goal. This would involve fabricating water desalination membranes with specific efficiency and providing the required energy to drive such process, preferably from renewable sources. Resources should then be allocated to achieve this goal. Milestones and potential technologies should be discussed and set out between policymakers and scientists. The policymakers would be able to establish national priorities and formulate policies required to realize them, while scientists advise on what is possible, how much would it cost and how long it would take. Such a process would offer a clear and detailed national roadmap for development. The roadmap would require continuous review and adjustment to meet changing requirements and new advances in science.

To achieve this synchronization between policy setting and scientific research, a number of working groups and taskforces are required. As a start, one main working group should be formed for each sector (industry, agriculture, etc). This working group should then form smaller taskforces, each to focus on a more specific area. Taskforces should be composed of scientists, government representatives, private businesses in the field, regulators and economists. With such expertise each taskforce should provide a comprehensive study of the specific area and potential developments, including costs and timeframe. All reports from these taskforces should then be collected at the working group level and cross-examined and evaluated to set the national priority in a specific sector.

It would be up to the government to prioritise sectors based on national needs, potential impact, time and cost – using the information provided by the working groups. This process would lead to effective, measured policy setting.

Scientific research should become the driving force behind policymaking and development and not the other way around.