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December 2010

Julia in South Africa

It was wonderful to arrive in sunny Cape Town after the snow in London! I was in South Africa in early December to meet young scientists at the 3 day National Research Foundation (NRF) Postdoctoral Forum for 150 post-docs. Dr Thandi Mgwebi (from the NRF) and I met last July in Turin at the EuroScience Open Forum and she was keen to introduce early career researchers in South Africa to the discussions about standing up for science and challenges to the peer review system.

I ran two workshops at the forum and I was excited to hear what young South African scientists are really fired up about when it comes to public debates about science. I was lucky to have Dr Evan Harris (former Lib Dem MP and member of our advisory council) there and he joined the panels to give a UK and policy perspective in the discussions. Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, a paleobiologist from the University of Cape Town, opened our panel talks on 'Standing up for Science' with some strong advice to the participants: get out there; make yourself known to journalists; and change the stereotype that scientists are only 'old, white and male'.

It was clear from the discussions that there is a long way to go in terms of getting enough science stories in the South African media and building trust between scientists and journalists. Deborah-Fay Ndlovu, a reporter for Research Africa, described her struggle to find willing scientists to comment on new research. So I was pleased to see the excitement on the post-docs' faces when I described the myth-busting and evidence hunting projects that VoYS have been up to in the UK. They raised their own frustrations over government advice on HIV and AIDS and the promotion of alternative medicine and 'nutriceuticals' in South Africa.

Our other workshop "What's up with Peer Review" showed that discussions on peer review in South Africa are much further behind those in the UK. In the UK we've seen lots of debate about the effectiveness of peer review, whereas I found the discussions in South Africa were more about the process: how an editor selects reviewers or decides between conflicting reviews. I was interested to hear from Dr Rob Drennan who had recently evaluated peer review at the NRF. He found that their biggest challenge is a lack of reviewers and reviewer fatigue.


While in Cape Town I met up with a few organisations to tell them about Sense About Science and hear what they were up to. Evan Harris and I visited the South African Medical Research Council and the Cochrane Centre. They told us about the efforts they've gone to, to try and encourage evidence based policy making (and some of the struggles involved in this). A recent initiative set up at The Cochrane Centre is STEPP - Supporting Translation of Evidences into Policy and Practices - an impressive scheme to try and link research evidence and policy. However, they thought that the hierarchical nature of the Department of Health might have slowed things down, and they questioned whether they should have been working on a more national scale rather than with the provincial government.

Evan and I had a look at the posters on display at the Cochrane centre - it was quite depressing to see that the major theme running through all the systematic reviews being presented (on subjects like TB, malaria and HIV prevention measures) was that the body of research was not of good enough quality to draw conclusions from.

I also met with Dr Therina Theron and Riana Coetzee from the Division for Research Development at Stellenbosch University. Science communication is high up on their agenda but they struggle to get enough scientists talking to the media, or science reported in the news. They have just appointed a press officer in their science faculty and are about to hold their first media workshop and get researchers responding to bad science particularly on debates about HIV and AIDs.

I left South Africa with my head buzzing from all the conversations and meetings. A number of post-docs at the forum have been in touch since, keen to get involved in projects and the upcoming VoYS International Congress in 2012. I think there are lots of exciting possibilities ahead for future standing up for science projects in South Africa!