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Dhesigen Naidoo 
Building bridges between science and decision-making

On 25 September we witnessed a remarkable occurrence. As a special event of the WRC Symposium, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee (PPC) on Water & Environmental Affairs had an open dialogue with South Africa’s water scientists. Portfolio Committee Chair, Johnny de Lange (MP) called it a ‘People’s Parliament’.

Apart from this being the first time for this type of interaction between legislators and water scientists outside the hallowed halls of Parliament, it gave resonance to the very important notion of creating a sustainable dialogue between the science community and political decision-makers. Much has been said and written about the knowledge chasm, where on the one side you have scientists claiming that they have many of the scientific solutions needed to address South Africa’s water challenges, and on the other side the decision-makers and water users feeling insufficiently supported by science to enable better and smarter management of our precious water resources. This has led to the knowledge chasm being described as the void between scientists, who feel that they are not heard, and a society and economy that says that they are not adequately served by science.

The ‘People’s Parliament was a cornerstone in the bridge across the chasm. Both the parliamentarians and the scientists very quickly converged on the core issues defining the national water challenge, and with amazing efficiency, to the surprise of the many who expressed reservations on the potential success of the exercise, found resonance on many of the positions.

We should take our hats off to both to the MPs and the truly remarkable candour in which they approached the dialogue, and the remarkably constructive nature in which the scientists unpacked the challenges and the scientific solutions.

The PPC also expressed their pleasure at the great progress this water science community has made to ensure that the pursuit of science is increasingly resulting in positive socio-economic outcomes and impacts, as enunciated in the WRC Knowledge Tree. The strides have been so remarkable that we were able to present during the seminar the Inaugural WRC Knowledge Tree Awards for such scientific work. We know that this recognition will further encourage the South African water research and development sector to perform more in this domain.

This brings one to the often debated matter about the bridge. That is the issue about whether or not the academic enterprise has to be sacrificed when re-orientating the scientific effort to better produce outcome, impact and genuine material changes on the ground. In the period of time over which these developments with the WRC Knowledge Tree’s six baskets of human capacity development, products and services for the real economy, advising and influencing policy and decision-making, empower communities, developing sustainable solutions and taking forward the national transformation project, the academic performance of the self-same South African water sector has increased.

In fact, we remarkably increased our global standing in production of papers in ISI journals, taking from 19th to 18th place. We also maintained the student participation at Masters and PhD levels in WRC projects of more than 450 a year.

This obviously requires much more rigorous interrogation, but the empirical evidence suggests that not only does the academic enterprise of science in the water sector not diminish through an increased focus on socio-economic development on the core issues of a developing country such as ours, but may even derive enhanced benefit from this orientation. It perhaps describes a pathway to South Africa eventually becoming a global hub of excellence in water development science.

We are hopeful of the promise of continued engagement between the budding science-legislative partnerships. The WRC will continue to act as the ‘glue’ agent to facilitate this.

Contact : Dhesigen Naidoo, WRC CEO email: dhesn@wrc.org.za or gerdak@wrc.org.za


Members of the Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs, Adv. J. de Lang(Chairperson), Ms J Manganye and Ms P Bhengu.
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