As the year 2020 was still in its infancy, science came under the spotlight as the world began to grapple with COVID-19. The disease was new, social media was awash with fake news, and finger pointing was rampant. With the World Health Organization (WHO) at the forefront of monitoring the disease, the Director-General declared on March 11 that COVID-19 was a pandemic. The normal that the world was used to, which can be likened to a vehicle moving on cruise control mode, was just about to be turned on its head. COVID-19 dared science. The incorporation of scientific advice1 into policymaking and scientific collaboration across national borders were not optional but necessary. Using various structures, science had to present the known and the unknown.
In Africa, one of these structures was the academy of science and its role in providing credible, independent, and evidence-based scientific advice came into sharp focus. Academies of science possess a unique strength that stems from the disciplinary diversity of their distinguished Fellows, scientists who have been recognized nationally and internationally for scientific contributions to their respective disciplines, as well as their involvement in science advice and science diplomacy. The regional academy of the continent, the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) led a number of activities that assisted in coordinating African scientists’ responses to the pandemic. For instance, in February 2020, the AAS participated in a global forum organized by the WHO in partnership with the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response (AAS is a member). The objective of the forum was to speedily identify and prioritize research activities for disease prevention, diagnosis, and high-quality care. Also, at the end of March 2020, the AAS hosted a webinar attended by over 250 African scientists, to brainstorm ideas for a research plan and support the continent’s response to the pandemic using science. The outcomes of this meeting assisted the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (an organ of the African Union) in directing the continent’s response to the pandemic. Although the regional academy has been very active in its response to COVID-19,2 this article is focused on national academies of science, as they are the bodies charged with providing science advice to policymakers in their respective countries.
There are currently 27 national academies of science in Africa. All are members of the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC),3 the umbrella organization for national academies of science in Africa that coordinates members to foster collaboration. Operating with different institutional models, different human and financial resources, and different degrees of national recognition, collaboration with other academies and partners, the national academies were tested by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some national academies of science were not accustomed to providing rapid science advice to policymakers, even as speed and innovation were of the essence in the early days of uncertainty. Others were unfamiliar with science diplomacy as a tool in responding to pandemics. Despite these obstacles, many national academies of science rose to the challenge and independently undertook various activities or became involved (directly or indirectly) in the national, regional, and global response efforts of their governments.
These response efforts and activities were highlighted during a webinar organized by NASAC in July 2020 under the title Response of African Science Academies to the COVID-19 Pandemic.4 Of the 27 existing national academies in Africa, at least thirteen played a role in supporting their respective countries’ responses to COVID-19. For example, in early March, the Nigerian Academy of Science produced a press statement titled COVID-19 pandemic: Containment is possible5 and the Senegal National Academy of Science and Technology disseminated another, titled Communiqué sur la Pandémie du COVID-19.6
One of the academies that participated in the webinar was the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), which is the lead academy in southern Africa. ASSAf was one of the first African academies to release a press statement on COVID-19, Implications of the Novel Coronavirus (March 2).7 This statement was followed by others on Academic freedom and the values of science (May 25) and The unanticipated costs of COVID-19 to South Africa’s quadruple disease burden (July 2).8 In addition, ASSAf was on the steering committee for the Rapid Grant Fund, which provided researchers and science engagement practitioners from selected African countries a total of US$4.7 million for projects related to COVID-19. The academy was part of the team that compiled the call for applications, reviewed the applications, and selected the grantees. The consortium, a brilliant example of science diplomacy in action was composed of South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Innovation, Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Newton Fund, Fonds de Recherche du Québec, and participating councils of the Science Granting Councils Initiative in sub-Saharan Africa.
The ASSAf, in collaboration with the United States National Academy of Sciences (US NAS), also led a project in which other academies in southern Africa hosted virtual events to disseminate policy briefs with recommendations for policymakers, on COVID-19 non-pharmaceutical interventions. The policy briefs were produced by Resolve to Save Lives (RTSL), a member organization of the Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to COVID-19 (PERC). The national academies of science, both senior and junior, that participated in the project included the Botswana Academy of Sciences (BAS), Kingdom of eSwatini Academy of Sciences (KEAS), Mauritius Academy of Science and Technology (MAST), Zambia Academy of Sciences (ZaAS), Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences (ZAS), South Africa Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), Zimbabwe Young Academy of Science (ZIMYAS), Mauritius Young Academy of Science (in the process of being established), and the Democratic Republic of Congo Young Academy of Science. This project enhanced the capacity of the participating academies to provide science advice to their respective policymakers while strengthening relations among South Africa and the five neighboring countries in southern Africa.
Lastly, ASSAf has partnered with diplomats based in Pretoria to host an embassy lecture series and mobilize scientists in the South African diaspora to support their host countries in research and development. In July 2020, ASSAf co-hosted a webinar with the Embassy of Italy in South Africa on the Social, Psychological and Health Impact of COVID-19 on the Elderly,9 further strengthening relations between the two countries in scientific research.
Although ASSAf’s science advice and science diplomacy are to be applauded, a significant number of other national academies of science in Africa are neither recognized nor supported by their national governments. Instead, many of these academies operate as non-governmental organizations with nonfunctional or nonexistent facilities (some even lack websites) and they can only undertake activities sporadically due to their lack of funding. Even more unfortunately, half of the continent’s 54 countries do not have national academies of science. Hence, as nations prepare for a post-COVID future and strategize to address other national and global challenges, they should invest in and strengthen their respective national academies of science as critical institutions at the nexus of science, society, and foreign policy.
- Science advice refers to the mechanisms and structures through which scientists inform policy by explaining options to policymakers on matters of national interest.
- African Academy of Sciences, “Global Health Security: COVID-19 in Africa,” www.aasciences.africa/covid-19-updates.
- Network of African Science Academies, http://nasaconline.org/en/index.php/2018/11/30/member-academies.
- Network of African Science Academies, “The Response of African Science Academies on the COVID-19 Pandemic: Webinar Report,” July 22, 2020, https://nasaconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID-19-webinar4.pdf.
- The Nigerian Academy of Science, “COVID-19 Pandemic: Containment is Possible,” March 13, 2020, https://nas.org.ng/2020/03/13/press-statement_covid-19-pandemic-containment-is-possible
- Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), “ASSAf Statement on the Implications of the Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2; COVID-19) in South Africa,” March 2020, www.assaf.org.za/files/2020/ASSAf%20Statement%20Corona%20Virus%202%20March%202020%20web.pdf.
- Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), “Statement on Academic Freedom and the Values of Science,” May 25, 2020, http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11911/168; Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), “Statement on the unanticipated costs of COVID-19 to South Africa’s quadruple disease burden,” July 2, 2020, www.assaf.org.za/index.php/2-uncategorised/672-the-unanticipated-costs-of-covid-19-to-south-africa-s-quadruple-disease-burden
- Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and the Embassy of Italy in South Africa, “Social, Psychological and Health Impact of COVID-19 on the Elderly: South African and Italian Perspectives (virtual panel discussion)” July 7, 2020,www.assaf.org.za/index.php/about-assaf/council-members/2-uncategorised/670-social-psychological-and-health-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-elderly-south-african-and-italian-perspectives.