Science must serve all of society

Dr Simphiwe Ngqangweni

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for humanity to collaborate, especially when it comes to using science to find solutions to common and pressing threats.

According to the World Bank, over 700 million people still live in extreme poverty.  The poorest people continue to bear the largest cost of global challenges such as disease and malnutrition.  Despite access to modern scientific tools, there does not appear to be a collective willingness to address these challenges.

Why can’t science be used as an enabler to solve long-standing ills such as poverty, inequality and hunger?  

There is no doubt that science has made, and continues to make, a positive impact on society.  The evidence is clear that human lifestyles, over time, have changed for the better.  The way we communicate, how we travel, the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the houses we live in are but a few examples.  In the agricultural sector, we are still enjoying the positive impact of the Green Revolution, which was a decades-long period of technology transfer that saw a dramatic increase in agricultural production and crop yields.  

The question must be asked, however, whether science is beneficial to all.  Are the results of scientific advancements only for those who can afford them?  These are, of course, broad questions that are not directed only to scientists.  Policy makers, the private sector, civil society, scientists and academia must collectively account for the ways in which science is used for the betterment of society.

The 2022 edition of the World Science Forum (WSF), held in Cape Town at the beginning of December – the first on African soil – offered the opportunity for participants to deliberate honestly about these questions and provide lasting solutions.  The WSF is a global biennial meeting that provides the scientific community, public policy makers, industry, civil society and other stakeholders with a global platform to exchange ideas on the growing interdependence of science and society, and the role of science in addressing global challenges facing humanity.

Set against the backdrop of the most unequal country, and on the poorest continent, in the world, the theme for WSF 2022 was "Science for Social Justice" and sought to tackle sub-themes such as "Science for Human Dignity", "Science for Africa and the World and "Justice in Science".  The broad themes of the forum suggested that discussions were not just to be limited to the issues of natural sciences, but also elevated the oft-forgotten role of social sciences.

I was privileged to have been invited to participate in one of the pre-events organised by the Human Sciences Research Council, in collaboration with the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions, the Swedish Embassy and the University of Pretoria under the theme, "Science for Inclusivity, Innovation, Food Security, Nutrition and Social Justice".  

My talk as a panellist sought to highlight the importance of real partnerships in ensuring that the benefits of science and innovation benefit all stakeholders.  For this goal to be achieved, the foundation must be laid at the level of policy making.  Policies must be crafted through what can be referred to as a "co-creation" model, where all stakeholders participate fully and meaningfully.

As the head of the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), a policy-advisory entity of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, I experienced policy co-creation in action during the drafting of the latest agricultural sector blueprint, the Agriculture and Agro-Processing Master Plan (AAMP).

Far from being perfect, the AAMP document reflects a consensus among social partners about what the agricultural sector needs to deal with to grow in an inclusive manner.  Central to this is ensuring that partners jointly invest in technological innovation to increase food security, not just at the national, but also at the household level.  Its signatories commit to setting up platforms (to be overseen by the NAMC) on which government, civil society, labour and business will each make resource contributions (real and in-kind) to its implementation and active monitoring and evaluation.

Another good example of an effective partnership in science is the system of statutory measures that the NAMC oversees on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.  One of these measures is the regulated collection and expenditure of levies by designated commodity bodies within the agricultural sector.  Enabled through legislation, the sector collects and spends close to R1 billion, half of which goes towards research and development.

To ensure inclusivity, the NAMC has set a condition that ensures that at least 20% of the total levy expenditure goes towards supporting black participants.  The benefits of the statutory levies – especially for marginalised groups – are evident in many agricultural value chains, such as mohair, where large commercial black enterprises have been established through levy funding.

As part of the implementation of the AAMP, government is committing to contribute towards the funding of black participants in the sector on a rand-to-rand basis to ensure maximum impact.  Implementation is no longer the responsibility of only the government or only the private sector – it is a joint responsibility.

As the above cases illustrate, if there is no meaningful participation by all stakeholders in dictating how the benefits of policy accrue – including those of science and innovation – there is likely to be continued schism and perhaps even mistrust between those who are perceived to be exclusive beneficiaries and those who feel left out.

Dr Simphiwe Ngqangweni is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Agricultural Marketing Council.  


© 2021 Department of Science and Innovations . All Rights Reserved.