Southern Africa: Early End of Network to Aid Southern Research Revealed

A network established by various UK scientific societies to coordinate their efforts in building research capacity in developing countries quietly collapsed before it got off the ground, raising questions over how best to coordinate learned societies' development work.

The Learned Societies for Development (LSfD) network was launched in October 2010, following a wave of enthusiasm among UK societies in various fields to help support scientists in developing countries and connect them to global networks.

"What we wanted to achieve with LSfD was to bring together learned societies that were working with scientists in developing countries to try and learn from one another about which projects were having the greatest impact and, where possible, collaborate," says Rebecca Smith, who was a policy officer at the UK's Biochemical Society one of the coordinators of the LSfD network at the time of its creation.

The network was funded by the United Kingdom's Biochemical Society and the UK National Commission for UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

But soon after its launch, the network vanished, SciDev.Net can reveal.

Tim Williams, chair of the UK National Commission, tells SciDev.Net that this closure was due to restructuring within his organisation in March 2011.

He says the commission was reorganised in response to the publication of the UK Department for International Development's Multilateral Aid Review, a process designed to assess the value for money of the multilateral bodies - including UNESCO - through which the department invested.

"The focus of the National Commission's activities therefore changed," says Williams. "The National Commission stopped managing committee-led projects like the LSfD, which was proposed by the former Science Committee, and refocused its efforts on policy advice, the reform of UNESCO and becoming a clearing house for UK accreditations to UNESCO."

"LSfD therefore did not develop any further," he says.

Despite the fact that LSfD "never really got off the ground", he says that the National Commission continues to work with learned societies through its 'task and finish' groups and by producing policy briefs on a wide range of sustainable development issues at UNESCO.

"Rather than having a working group that meets regularly to discuss problems, the National Commission is able to work more flexibly with members of learned societies and respond to targeted need and support specific policy advice with key ministries. In this sense, the work is now more effective, and results focussed," he adds.

Stephen Huggett, general secretary at the London Mathematical Society, says that when various UK learned societies met at the Royal Astronomical Society in 2009, they found that an approach that worked in one subject did not necessarily work in another, and that collaboration with other learned societies in mathematics was more beneficial.

For example, the London Mathematical Society works with the African Mathematics Millennium Science Initiative to pair up UK and African mathematics research groups, which Huggett says has been "extremely successful."

"I think the solutions that work for mathematics may not work in other subjects, so I don't think collaboration is necessary," he tells SciDev.Net. "Too much uniformity isn't necessarily a good thing here. If the agenda is to make things uniform, or fit into some framework, then I think that's almost certainly going to cause damage. It's much better to let people work out what works in their own subjects. Each subject has got its own network structure - and good - if it works, it works."

He is in favour of meetings of learned societies to learn from each other, "but if somebody suddenly says this is how we've all got to do it in the future, then I'd run a mile," he adds.

Phil Charles, chair of the Royal Astronomical Society's International Committee, says: "Within each field, the learned societies probably are aware of the opportunities to build research capacity in the developing world and how best to execute them."

But he says that an LSfD-type approach could open up opportunities for funding and access to projects outside of the society's own area.

"UNESCO could give you access to high-level people in governments and so on that could be beneficial," he adds.

And Rebecca Smith says: "The coordination of activities that leads to economies of scale and prevents organisations having to start from scratch has to be a good thing."

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