3 February 2014

Africa: Why Don't Humanitarian NGOs Want Free Science Advice?

Washington DC — Last week an off-the-cuff remark stirred things up at an otherwise rather civilised meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offices.

An assortment of scientists from across the United States had braved freezing temperatures to meet and discuss how to offer their expertise to humanitarian NGOs.

"I have an issue here: why is it that we're providing these charities with scientific advice for free in the first place? They have enough money to pay for legal advice - so why not scientific?"

It's fair to say that Mary Gray's interjection did not go down well. The professor of maths and statistics from nearby American University was sitting next to me at a working group meeting where the ten or so participants were discussing how best to link up willing scientists with humanitarian charities, so they can share their expertise.

The working group on 'services to the humanitarian community', one of several convened by the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, helps organise the On Call Scientists project, for this purpose.

Over the past year, it has also been running training workshops on a trial basis in Washington DC and New York.

These see a scientist-trainer give a free seminar for professionals working in humanitarian NGOs on subjects such as visualising data or qualitative research methods in human rights fact-finding.

Yet the main hurdle the group faces in rolling these out more widely - they are hoping to cover more subjects and run the sessions more frequently - is a lack of demand from the humanitarian sector.

"A lot of scientists are very keen on the idea," Susan Hinkins, the group's co-chair, told the meeting. "But we have more statisticians than we have projects to place them on."

Late last year, the group circulated a questionnaire to thousands of people working at humanitarian NGOs on the east coast of the United States, asking them what sort of scientific workshops they would find useful. It generated just 36 responses.

"We're speaking two different languages, that's the whole problem," said group member Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of South-East Asia programme of Freedom House, an NGO that advocates freedom of expression. "Humanitarians simply want to see policy change, a measurable output.

They don't care how they achieve that; whether their research and case studies are done in a methodologically rigorous way or not."

Gray's solution to this problem is to try and create demand. "I want to suggest something radical," she said. "How about sitting on a board of one of these NGOs?"

She suggested that putting the case for science there would be a quicker way of seeing humanitarians embrace the need for science in their work.

Not everyone agreed with Gray that NGOs should ideally pay for scientific advice. "It's not like they are dripping with money," said Gunawardena-Vaughn.

But, at the moment, whether the advice is free or not, there is little demand for it.

If scientists sitting on the governance boards of humanitarian organisations could create that demand, maybe Gray has a point.

Link to On Call Scientists website

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