Evidence-based Practice: ‘Double Symposium’ proceedings on problems, possibilities and politics

Academy of Science of South Africa (2006)

Proceedings report


The Academy’s Double Symposium that was admirably arranged by Prof. Jonathan Jansen and executed by the staff of the Academy, had objectives that were concisely captured by the Minister of Science and Technology in his address that intervened between the two symposia: “This Double Symposium on the ‘Nature of Evidence’ and ‘Science-based Advice for the Nation’ has an important contribution to make in exploring the urgency and growing importance of evidence as the basis for making informed policy and practical decisions across the world. It also offers the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), which is an independent and authoritative provider of evidence-based advice on a broad range of nationally significant topics and issues, an opportunity to examine its own role in the national science system” Mr M. Mangena, Minister of Science and Technology Robust debate in a democracy can be fostered through the use of evidence where the participants share a common understanding of the nature of evidence. The participants in the first symposium showed that the nature and use of evidence is often divergent in different domains, with the particularly stark contrast being represented by the views of the natural sciences and the law. The discussion during this symposium indicated that a much more nuanced approach to the use of evidence is required, as well as explicit discussion of divergent understandings of the uses of evidence if productive debate and effective decision making is to be achieved. The use of evidence based advice to address topics and issues that affect the well-being of the nation is a significant and daunting role that the Academy wishes to fi ll. In this respect, it will be following the example of other international academies of Science and Arts that have mobilized the intellectual capacity of their membership to perform this function. The second symposium considered the results of studies that had been undertaken by the National Academies of Science of the United States and the Royal Society of London so that the lessons that they have learned may be applied in our context. What was clear from these discussions was that giving advice tends to be nationally embedded. The nature of advice structures in different countries requires that Academies determine their mode of operation and role in relation to these. In this respect the National Academies of Sciences of the US generally have their reports commissioned by government or other organisations, while the Royal Society studies are almost exclusively self-generated. We need to determine in our own context what judicious mixture of commissioned and self-generated reports we need to develop, taking into account our relationships with other advice giving organisations in South Africa. Participants in the symposia came from a range and diversity of organisations, indicating that the Academy was addressing a topical subject with particular resonance in our context at the moment. It is clear that the Academy has at its disposal a resource that can be effectively used to play the role envisaged both in the Minister of Science and Technology’s speech and encapsulated by Mark Orkin in the discussion at the end of the Double Symposium: “ASSAf by contrast has a major role to play in acting as a professional body drawing judiciously on the large pool of intellectual resources at the universities, at the highest level of expertise and in a multi-disciplinary way, to generate advice on big national issues.” The presentations and discussions that are recorded in this volume, show that the Academy has accepted the challenge implicit in the deliberations of the two symposia and wishes to engage actively in its advice giving role.