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Science academies must learn to be more transparent

By David Dickson and TV Padma - posted Tuesday, 2 November 2010

To retain public trust in a connected world, science academies need to be more open about the way that they operate.

When India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, criticized an Indian inter-academy report on genetically modified crops last month as lacking in scientific rigour, the science academies responsible for producing the report could have chosen to stand their ground.


Instead, the head of the country's top academy issued an apology a day later, and promised to produce a new report. Although the science academies' acknowledgment of the weaknesses in their report was welcome, it was the kind of incident that they could have done without, signalling that they may be susceptible to political pressure.

In a world fraught with contention over emerging technologies that act as a meeting point between science and society - genetic engineering, nanotechnology, geo-engineering to name a few - science academies in developing countries have an important role to play.

That role has two dimensions. First, academies should provide extensively researched, peer-reviewed recommendations on (among other topics) the best ways that science can fight poverty. Second, they also need to mould their behaviour to the requirements of the modern world, not remain locked in closed practices that have served their interests in the past, but are increasingly outdated.

This is an important lesson for members of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), which has become an umbrella body for developing country scientists, and held its 21st general meeting in Hyderabad in October.

Image problem

Developing countries need sound science-based policies, and science academies should be helping achieve this by rigorously evaluating critical issues.

Yet few would deny that academies have an image problem that affects their credibility, and hence their impact. The French physicist Yves Quéré, a former co-chair of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues, described last year in Nature how, when he asked a group of French teenagers what they thought an academy was, one eventually described it as a "club of old gentlemen".


To be effective in the modern world, academies need to shake off this image as elitist organisations pre-occupied with grants and fellowships, and distanced from social realities.

In principle, the credibility of science academies should be high. Several opinion polls in the West have shown that the public still places much more confidence in scientists than in politicians, business firms and even the media, and there is no reason that it should be different in the developing world.

But this trust must not be taken for granted. Scientists, and the academies that represent them, must recognise that the Internet age has brought with it a cultural change triggered by blog posts and tweets from those who no longer automatically respect authority built primarily on tradition and academic power.

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This article was previously published as an editorial on SciDev.Net on October 15, 2010.

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About the Authors

David Dickson is director and editor of the website
He was news editor of Nature from 1993 to August 2001, and was the journal’s Washington correspondent from 1977 to 1982. Originally a graduate in mathematics, he has also worked for The Times Higher Education Supplement (1973-1977), Science (1982-1989) and New Scientist (1989-1992).

TV Padma is South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net.

Other articles by these Authors

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