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Challenges for scientists in informing public policy in developing Asian nations

Low and middle-income countries in Asia face significant disparities in scientific capacity and ability to influence public policy, which is likely to affect responses to future pandemics, climate change and technological advancements such as Artificial Intelligence, according to the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA).

The alarming insight is a key takeaway from the recent INGSA2024 meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, where scientists from more than 65 countries came together to share their experience in connecting scientific knowledge to policy implementation in countries around the world. INGSA-Asia Regional Programme Manager, Aishwuriya Kunashankar said the meeting confirmed that despite the wealth of scientific evidence available, the disconnect between scientists and policymakers in many countries across Asia is preventing evidence from being translated into actionable policies.

“There needs to be a synergistic and coordinated approach among relevant organizations to effectively integrate science advice into policy action,” Ms Kunashankar said. “One of the most significant challenges identified has been the failure to include people from indigenous and rural communities in policy considerations.”

That sentiment was echoed by the founder and CEO of the Central Highlands Centre for Community Development and Climate Change Adaptation (CHCC) in Vietnam. Dr Toan Ngoc Dang found during the COVID-19 pandemic, ethnic minorities were not only unrepresented in policy considerations, they also received little information in their own language to understand the options available to them, but he says INGSA2024 has given him some hope for change in the future.

“Reflecting on this journey, I am reminded of the transformative potential of science advice in driving evidence-informed policies,” Dr Dang said. “I am determined to leverage the knowledge and connections acquired from the conference to assist me in implementing activities and projects aimed at empowering local stakeholders, including ethnic minority groups and public institutions.”

Robert Karoro, a former government adviser in Kiribati believes mechanisms for science advice to policy need to be strengthened within the Pacific region so that the voice of the communities is included.

“One of the challenges that should be prioritized in the Pacific is representation,” Mr Karoro said. “A platform such as INGSA-Asia could effectively assist governments to make evidence-based policies if there is continued engagement and collaboration between Asia and the Pacific.”

Dr Hazel Yean Ru Ann, from Sunway University, Malaysia is the Project Coordinator for the collaborative Zoonotic Spillover project between INGSA-Asia and the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) which has released a best practice guidebook: Countering Zoonotic Spillover of High Consequence Pathogens in Southeast Asia.

According to the World Health Organization, Zoonotic spillover, which is the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans, is recognized as the predominant cause of emerging infectious diseases and as the primary cause of recent pandemics such as COVID-19.

“INGSA2024 emphasized the importance of ‘expanded evidence’ transcending conventional definitions and boundaries to apply broader evidence from across cultures, languages, demographics, geographies, ideologies, epistemic traditions, and geopolitical alliances,” Dr Yean Ru Ann said. “It highlighted the need to assist decision-makers in managing interconnected, multi-level, transboundary, and often deeply polarizing problems that societies face.”

President of National Academy of Sciences Sri Lanka, Professor Nadira Karunaweera led a regional mapping project to gain an understanding of the science advice systems that operate in Australasia to inform a process for Sri Lanka, which does not currently have a system for science advice to government. Prof. Karunaweera said the INGSA2024 meeting made it clear that for systems of advice to be effective, strengthening the connection between scientists and policymakers is crucial.

“The conference highlighted the gap that remains or the disconnect between scientific knowledge (scientists) and policymaking, which seems to affect countries disproportionately,” Prof. Karunaweera said. “The need for training courses and awareness programmes for the younger generation was emphasized, which really made me aware of such a need in my home country.”

Aishwuriya Kunashankar says INGSA-Asia is working to respond to the call for training.

“INGSA-Asia acknowledges the need for our efforts to address local issues in the region such as transboundary pollution haze, ecological ramifications of the oil release in Fukushima waters and the imperative of science diplomacy for the sustainability of the South China Sea,” Ms Kunashankar said.

Leveraging the momentum generated by our annual Grassroots Science Advice Promotion Awards program, INGSA-Asia aims to extend financial support and expertise through capacity building workshops tailored to tackle these critical issues.

“Moving forward, INGSA-Asia remains steadfast in its mission to foster science advice capacity in the region by fortifying its position as a science-policy interface by enhancing communication channels and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists and policymakers,” Ms Kunashankar said.

Image Caption: Toan Dang interviews a member of the community from the central highlands of Vietnam (Image supplied).

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