From Dublin to Dakar

by Sir Peter Gluckman
View of complex machinery like a particle accelerator at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research

As mentioned in my previous post, I recently spoke at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin. This is the European equivalent of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, but is only held every second year.

For those who are used to going to disciplinary based science meetings, such fora — with a focus on the relationships between science and policy, and between science, society and trends in technology — might seem somewhat strange, but the need for scientists to see their work in a broader context is increasingly important. In that regard it was pleasing to see so many young scientists present.

The programme was impressive, although it meant that I had insufficient bilateral discussion. It was delight to hear Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CERN Director General, give his explanation of the discovery of the Higgs boson, announced only a week before. A theme that came through in several sessions was that of the need to look again at some aspects of the scientific model.

Public science funding in many countries is increasingly being used to focus on identifying science leaders early and investing in them through structures similar to our Centres of Research Excellence. This trend was perhaps started by bodies such as the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Foundation, and is now being seen as an important part of national funding schemes. The impact of doing so is becoming apparent. For example, in Denmark the Centres of Excellence make up only 2% of research funding but generate well over 20% of very high impact papers, and even more of patents arising from public funding.

I took part in two panels. The first was on the role of science in policy formation along with Anne Glover, the newly appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, and Paddy Cunningham, Chief Scientific Adviser of Ireland. There is a general sense that increasingly Governments want to get a better handle on the knowledge base when dealing with complex policy formation, and linked to this is a growing need for good risk and technology assessment.

The second panel I was on considered the role of international science. Here I shared the platform with Naledi Pandor, the South African Minister of Science, and with Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the AAAS. I obviously spoke from the perspective of a small country. Overall I was most impressed with the profile South Africa had at the meeting, and how seriously this country takes science as both a way of progressing their own development and of taking a leadership role in their continent. The Minister and I had a useful sidebar conversation about our growing partnership over the square kilometer array.

Among the bilateral meetings I had were valuable discussions with Anne Glover, Paddy Cunningham, and the CEs of the equivalent Ministries to MBIE from both Ireland and Denmark. We in New Zealand have much to learn from other small countries. I was impressed by how the commitment to science remains strong and unequivocal despite the obvious economic difficulties of the Eurozone. Indeed it appears to be a given, even at this time, that there is a commitment to increase funding further.

Only a few days later I was in Dakar, Senegal, at the invitation of Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. The UNDP — the one UN agency with country-based activity — was having its annual regional cluster meeting there.

This meeting provided a chance for regional strategic planning by the Senegalese programme directors with UN headquarters. The challenges being faced were around assisting emergent countries to build institutions of effective governance and enhance living conditions of the people in the region. The magnitude of all of this is enormous and to listen to the discussion was sobering.

Helen had asked me to come and talk about non-communicable disease because this is rapidly emerging as a major cause of lost productivity in Africa. The issue is that the western approach of diet and exercise is inappropriate to the situation in Africa, and for that matter, not very appropriate in the West either.

As I argued in my book with Mark Hanson, Fat Fate and Disease, the issue is actually one of development, in two senses of the word. The pathway to diabetes and associated conditions starts early in life and the only way to intervene is to take a life-course approach. In practice, I think that means a focus on adolescent girls and improving their health and nutritional literacy. In the context of Africa that is the challenge of education and empowerment. Such intent is right at the heart of the UNDP agenda.

Two very different meetings, but both very instructive.

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