STEPS Symposium 2013: Science and developing countries – whose expertise counts?

Dipak Gyawali at the symposium.
Photo: Lance Bellers

Guest blog by Rachael Taylor, PhD student, SPRU

The second session of the STEPS Symposium on the global politics of scientific advice asked ‘whose expertise counts?’

In his opening comments, Professor Brian Wynne (University of Lancaster) turned this question around by asking “whose questions count?” He described how sheep farmers in the UK asked relevant questions of scientific advisers and made observations following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (as discussed in his paper from 1992). Prof Wynne explained that in this context the questions and observations from farmers were largely ignored by scientists.

This analogy made me think of farmers in a very different, developing-world context. Small-holder farmers in developing countries frequently have few channels through which they can question, critique, or respond to science or policy. In these contexts, policy is prescriptive. While some participatory development projects aim to involve local communities in identifying issues and determining policy, cases where this is being successfully implemented are far outnumbered by cases where there is no such project.

The issues surrounding local, indigenous expertise in a developing country context were only briefly raised during this session. Dr Dipak Gyawali (Nepal Academy of Science and Technology) spoke about the need for more ‘toad eye’ science and less ‘eagle eye’ science (his slides are here). Though this acknowledges that scientific expertise can come from places outside of academia, his discussion did not elaborate on the challenges this presents to hierarchies and how academia and the policy arena can engage with this.

Dr Alice Bell (SPRU, University of Sussex) spoke about the role of the public as experts in a developed world context. She suggested that social media tools such as Twitter can act as a tool to mobilise the public in challenging scientific advice (see also her earlier post on this blog). During her presentation (slides here) my thoughts again turned to how this may be reflected in a developing country context where access to social media is less widely available, especially in rural areas. For example, could local radio, widely used throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, could play a role in the vocalisation of public opinion regarding science and policy debates?

Policy and science in developing countries often come from, or are heavily influenced by developed countries, especially those with colonial links. It is worth considering whether it is harder for developing countries to critique or dispute science from developed countries, or to question the ‘authority’ assigned to scientists in developed countries.

Later in the day, in her keynote lecture, Anne Glover (Chief Scientific Adviser to the President, European Commission) used the example of genetically modified (GM) crops to illustrate this problem. She explained that if European countries refuse to use GM crops, developing countries would also refuse them (slides here). This example highlights the influence of hierarchies from north to south. In the case of GM crops, developing countries have the potential to benefit most from growing them, according to Prof Glover, and they are often cited as a ‘fix’ for increasing food production in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is for reasons such as these that those engaged with development, science and policy arenas must challenge hierarchies of authority, expertise and influence.

Discussions around authority of expertise and whose expertise counts centred on UK and western science and policy systems, and not those of developing countries. Where the context and systems are so different, understanding whose expertise and questions count is a complex issue: but it’s arguably a more important challenge because of population and economic growth in developing countries. To me, surrounded by such eminent academics, these issues were under-addressed throughout this session.

Though questions regarding ‘whose expertise counts?’ in a developing country context was under-represented in this session, they were referred to. Issues regarding ‘whose questions count’, however, as raised in the opening remarks of the session, were not touched on. In sessions the following day, Professor Lidia Brito (UNESCO) and Dr Camilla Toulmin (International Institute for Environment and Development) both referred to ‘who is asking the questions?’ Throughout all of the Symposium’s five sessions, however, no one attempted to adequately respond to this.

To view resources, video, commentary and slides from the event, visit the Symposium page on the STEPS Centre website.