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SASAC Systems Symposium Thinking

SASAC Systems Symposium Thinking

Science is a key pillar of any knowledge-based society - and to fully appreciate the dynamic and complex nature of science, it’s necessary to take a holistic, multi-disciplinary perspective: a systems thinking perspective.

That’s the perspective adopted by a group of 14 PhD students who gathered for a “Science and Policy” session hosted by the the Southern African Systems Analysis Centre (SASAC) consortium led by the University of the Western Cape (UWC) from 12 to 14 July 2017.

The Session reiterated the importance of systems thinking as a holistic, multi-disciplinary perspective, which recognizes the complexity of science and helps us make sense of it. Systems thinking further recognizes that science shouldn’t be considered in silos - and that science requires that scientists work together, and challenge assumptions and findings in the quest for new knowledge.

Professor Thandi Mgwebi, Director of SASAC - and also Director of Research at UWC - provided contextual background on the relationship between science and policy, and the societal value of science.

“Society values science because of many benefits it offers,” she said, “from problem identification and assessment, solutions to societal problems, prediction of outcomes to evaluation of outcomes.”


But there is often a disconnect between the drivers of science and the drivers of policy: science is driven by the quest for knowledge, whereas policy has to consider what is politically expedient, and politics is driven by the quest for power.

“Scientists don’t make policy,” she noted, “they inform policy. And for that to happen, scientific knowledge should be shared - and in a language that makes it shareable.”

Nonetheless policy and science are linked; they have a special relationship because:- science shapes policy; policy shapes science - through funding priorities and therefore opportunities; they have an interdependent relationship.

Science and Policy: An Interdependent Relationship

This relationship, Mgwebi explained, is shaped by expectations from both the scientific community and from the policymakers.

Expectations of policymakers: must be receptive to scientific advice; must challenge scientists to deliver on public investment; must understand the nature of scientific research - that it is evolving, and that disagreement is a key component to that evolution;

Expectations of the scientific community: integrity of research must be upheld; must use established communication channels to influence/shape policy - academies, expert panels, policy analysts/advisors, evidence champions (such as science advisors); must be able to communicate clearly; where possible, their research should contribute to addressing national priorities.

Professor Andries du Toit , Director of the Centre for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at UWC, shared his views on “How do we view evidence in a post-truth social and political environment?” using his experience in land reform, poverty and inequality studies.

Other speakers included Dr Bernadette Johnson, Thokozani Simelane of the Water Research Commission (WRC); Dr John Dini, Dr Luanita Snyman van der Walt (CSIR); Dr Sebataolo Rahlao from SANBI; and Dr Erika Kraemer-Mbula (University of Johannesburg) who spoke about Transformative Innovation Policy and its early application in the South African context.

SASAC currently offers three broad initiatives through its consortium partners:

  1. A three-year Systems Analysis Bursary Programme for South African based students  (the Scholarships component)
  2. A two-month Systems Analysis Capacity Development Programme, the capacity development component for students in the early stages of their PhD studies;
  3. High-Level Systems Analysis Capacity Strengthening Program, the capacity strengthening component.

The Centre  is an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation.