When Indonesian and world scientists rail against the raging Indonesian forest fires that are destroying the ozone layer, do their leaders listen?
When ASEAN scientists moan about the destruction of coral reefs in the South China Sea and the Tubbataha Reef, are their voices heard?
When the small Pacific island nations, living just 1—3 metres above sea level, warn that global warming is causing their seas to rise and drown them, is anyone listening?
There are probably 10,000 prominent and potentially influential scientists, in our conservative estimate, who are members of some 50 national academies of science and technology in the Asia-Pacific region.
What are these scientists doing, aside from their routine — conducting research on their areas of expertise, writing papers, publishing books, lecturing and attending conferences?
Scientists must organise and advocate
To make an impact on society scientists have to do more. They should venture out of their laboratories and classrooms and take stands on science issues. We cannot leave the solution of our society’s problems only to the politicians who run our governments.
As a start, the scientists are doing the right thing by organising themselves through science academies. Only if they speak with one voice will they be heard and their influence felt. As early as 15 January 1984, the Federation of Asian Scientific Academies and Societies (FASAS) was established in New Delhi. (1)
“Let their voices be heard now.”
The Federation, a non-government science organisation from the region, started with 12 scientific academies and societies as its founding members. Memberships were later on extended to other national scientific academies and societies in the Asia-Pacific region.
FASAS president Kurt Lambeck urged its members “to take an active part in FASAS activities and programmes to build strong and independent academies across the region that can advise governments on the use of science to resolve national and regional issues.” Well said, but has it been well done? (2)
The original secretariat of FASAS was supported by the Indian National Science Academy until 1999. The secretariat moved in 2000 to Malaysia and was hosted by the Malaysian Academy of Sciences.
Meanwhile, another organisation, the Association of Academies of Sciences in Asia (AASA), covering Asian and Oceania countries, was being planned separately. It was inaugurated on 22 September 2000 with Mu Shik Jhon of South Korea as the first president during a symposium on Science Policy in Asia. (1) In the decade that followed the two associations of science academies — AASA and FASAS — functioned separately. They were merged into The Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) on 1 January 2012, with 34 member-academies and societies of science from 30 countries.
The merger was facilitated by the newly formed Inter Academy Partnership, a global network of 130 national academies of science and regional networks. (1)
AASSA and its two predecessors have been active in staging national and regional scientific research, conferences and symposia in the past two decades, as can be seen by its record. AASSA alone conducted 23 conferences between 2002 and 2016, at least once a year and sometimes two. (1)
Its conferences have been relevant to current scientific issues. Its first symposium was on Science Policy in Asia in 2002 while the one in 2016 was on Refugees and Migrants: A Global Problem or an Asset?
Past conference topics have covered transfer and adaptation of advanced technologies, the impact of biotechnological advances in Asia, science and technology of water, role of science academies, promotion of science, environmental and climatic changes and biodiversity, emerging technologies for a greener Earth, sustainable agriculture through biotechnology and climate risks in sustainable development.
Science academies and their roles
What are national academies of science and what do they do? Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have science academies whose members are called Academicians. The National Academy of Science and Technology in the Philippines has been in existence for 40 years now. (3)
In general, the members are the best of the best scientists elected by their peers from the country’s leading and most distinguished natural and social scientists and engineers. They give scientific and technological advice to government. Their recommendations are independent of those coming from the science ministries directly under the president of the country. They are independent of government.
“They need to be proactive, to advocate and speak out more forcefully on the crucial issues of our time like climate change, environmental pollution, genetically modified crops, and the threat of a post-antibiotic era in medicine.”
Often the advice of a national academy is sought when an issue or concern has reached a level when government agencies do not agree or the general public has an opinion contrary to that of the existing government. (3)
The national academy in this case could act as an “arbiter” but the most ideal case is when the country’s president or the science secretary would consider the academy’s advice as the “First Advice” or “THE ADVICE”. In practice, however, the president and the science secretary would deliberate the academy’s advice in consultation with the rest in the cabinet.
How influential are they and how relevant is their role?
“The academy has influence on articulation of science policy but only indirectly through participation of academicians in congressional hearings, in assisting legislators craft evidence-based laws involving science,” Filipino academician Emil Javier tells SciDev.Net. Javier, former president of the Philippine National Academy of Science and Technology from 2005 to 2012, says that the academy now and then also puts out position papers on issues they consider important and timely.
“The academies of science will always be relevant in society as new areas of knowledge are discovered . . . and technologies developed to apply them for human purposes,” he adds. “The academy members are in fact the most senior and most accomplished scientists of the country and therefore had contributed tremendously to research and training of future scientists during their prime.”
No doubt the eminent scientists of Asia-Pacific are abreast, and working on the relevant scientific issues of the world today. And no doubt they are now organised to be able to speak with coordinated voices.
But their voices are not loud enough. They should not wait for governments to seek their advice. They need to be proactive, to advocate and speak out more forcefully on the crucial issues of our time like climate change, environmental pollution, genetically modified crops, and the threat of a post-antibiotic era in medicine.
Let their voices be heard now.
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.
This article was made possible with support from Monsanto.