A new network has been established to improve information exchange and provide a forum to identify mechanisms to strengthen the impact of science and innovation in supporting prosperity, security and sustainability across the Commonwealth.
Last week, the UK hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, bringing together Commonwealth Leaders to discuss how to deliver a more prosperous, secure, sustainable and fair future for all Commonwealth citizens. These are ambitious goals – what role can science and technology play? That was the question being explored by 27 government advisers, heads of science academies and equivalents from across the Commonwealth when they met at the Royal Society on 16 and 17 April.
The Commonwealth is significant for science: it is home to 12 percent of the world’s researchers and accounts for around 10 percent of global research and development expenditure. Many of the challenges that face Commonwealth nations, from climate change and the state of our oceans to food security, are in areas where no single country has all the answers.
A new network for science advice
At the first ever meeting of its kind, organised by the UK’s Government Office for Science, Commonwealth science advisers discussed how to tackle the immediate (how science advice can be used to plan for and respond to emergencies) as well as the long-term challenges (how to use science to strengthen the global response to UN Sustainable Development Goals). The discussion illustrated the important role science can play in informing action on Commonwealth challenges.
Sharing knowledge and expertise
Links between Commonwealth nations can provide an opportunity to share data and scientific expertise, from which all partner countries can benefit.
Delegates were keen to learn what approaches to the Sustainable development goals have worked elsewhere and how they could be adapted to inform their own nation’s efforts. For example, Jamaica is working with Caribbean partners to gather data on crime to help better target interventions. Could the Commonwealth network be a sandbox for testing potential solutions?
Another approach is collaborative projects that build expertise. For example, in the area of food security, the phytophthera genus of plant diseases affects many important species across Commonwealth countries, from cocoa and potato to the iconic New Zealand kauri. Could sharing expertise across the Commonwealth provide a powerful new network for training and developing new solutions?
The network will explore how locally-derived data can be brought together across the Commonwealth to understand these kinds of challenges and support each other in developing innovative solutions.
Strengthening the link between evidence and policy
It was clear science advisers have an important role as communicators to translate policy challenges into questions for the scientific community, bring together different disciplines and communicate insights to policy makers. The Pacific Commission highlighted the importance of presenting evidence to policy makers in a way that makes it relevant. Tsunami risk maps in Tonga became useful to decision makers once they were linked to the reality of population distribution: how many people can run to safety once they hear the tsunami alerts? Where are the areas where this isn’t possible? This informed infrastructure development such as building shelters where they are most needed.
Demonstrating the value of science
Several delegates highlighted the challenge of making the case for investment in science. To have access to the best science advice, governments need to encourage investment in the science base so that they have home-grown knowledge and expertise. Individual nations gave examples of how investment in science and technology is making a difference: from Sri Lanka’s development of nanotechnology capability to Rwanda’s approach of making science and technology a key pillar for successful economic development over the last ten years.
Building on existing collaboration
There is clearly a rich seam of expertise and international cooperation that already exists across the Commonwealth. Alongside the meeting, there was an exhibition to celebrate science, research and innovation collaboration across the Commonwealth, opened by Science Minister, Sam Gyimah. A wide range of UK organisations are involved in Commonwealth collaboration: from grants for outstanding individual scientists and partnerships between institutions (such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities), to large-scale collaborative efforts, such as the Square Kilometre Array, one of the world’s largest science projects.
The fact that the Commonwealth accounts for a third of the world’s population but only 10 percent of global R&D expenditure shows that there is great scope for capacity building. Programmes such as the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund are an important mechanism to support the next generation of research leaders in developing countries: enabling exceptional researchers to do outstanding and important research to address key global challenges. In fact, the Royal Society’s work on the Commonwealth, has shown a huge appetite to build collaboration.
The Commonwealth can be a powerful political force for change. Sustainable development and protecting the environment are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. Science advisers have set themselves a challenge to deliver a plan of action to leaders at the Commonwealth summit in 2020. By working closely with the Commonwealth secretariat and Commonwealth science academies, the new network will help ensure science becomes central to the Commonwealth’s agenda and can play an important part in the aspirations of the organisation.