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Winter/Spring 2008 Vol. 8 No. 1



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SPOTLIGHT

A Call for African Scientists to Speak Up


Narcisco Matos, executive director of the Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique, at the third annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, held November 2007 in Dakar, Senegal, photos by Bill Kearney

Narcisco Matos, executive director of the Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique, delivered the keynote speech at the third annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI) in Dakar, Senegal. ASADI, administered by the U.S. National Academies and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to boost the ability of African academies to inform policymaking and public discourse with evidence-based advice. Following are edited excerpts from an interview with Matos by Bill Kearney.


What role should African academies have in getting science more accepted and utilized?

One of the key challenges for African scientists is to translate science to a language that can be utilized by the general public and policymakers. It also is a matter of identifying the issues that are a priority for a country; sometimes there is a disconnect between what the scientists are working on and what is perceived to be more useful to the country.

So academies addressing everyday problems would be helpful?

Yes, let me give you an example. In any city in Africa today you will see they are overcrowded with minibuses, which results in thousands of fatal accidents. But I would be surprised if you could find any study published in Africa on this phenomenon, although we live with it every day.


Why is it so important, as you said in your speech, for African scientists to be a bridge between "Western" science and indigenous practices for the treatment of disease?

Because we Africans still believe very much in -- and use -- practices that have not been interrogated by science. Most Africans go to a traditional doctor to treat disease, or go to church, or pray to their ancestors. We cannot ignore the reality of who we are, and it is important to recognize how the average African deals with daily life. There are [traditional] medicines that we know work, but they may have side effects that we don't know about because there are no studies.

Participants at the third annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, held November 2007 in Dakar, Senegal, photos by Bill KearneyParticipants at the third annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, held November 2007 in Dakar, Senegal, photos by Bill KearneyParticipants at the third annual conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, held November 2007 in Dakar, Senegal, photos by Bill Kearney

You noted how CNN has on experts whenever there is a disaster, but that you do not see this in the African media. Is there a disconnect in Africa between the media and scientists?

That may be part of it, but it's also because, frankly, there is no high regard here for science, and the media are no different from society in general, so thus don't think about interviewing scientists. Also, when there is a problem, governments don't turn to their own scientists for help but hire consultants from abroad instead. Ironically, the first thing these consultants do is turn to local experts for help.

Do you think members of African national academies will become more receptive to the idea of public service as advisers to their governments?

Yes, ASADI is prompting scientists to begin to think about this. Our academies have been mostly honorific. You got in because of what you did in the past, not what you are expected to do in the future. Now I'm hearing the call for academies to be more active and produce evidence-based opinions that would reach those who make decisions.

For more information on ASADI and other interviews from the conference, go to <national-academies.org/asadi>.



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Copyright 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences