At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Commonwealth countries including Canada, England, Australia and India held frequent meetings of scientific advisers in an attempt to learn from each other. others in managing this crisis. A strategy to which French-speaking countries seemed almost foreign, even though scientific knowledge offers the keys to carrying out relevant political actions in the face of global challenges such as the pandemic or climate change.
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Hence the idea of creating the French-Speaking International Network for Scientific Advice (RFICS), including in particular scientists from French-speaking Africa, whose vocation is to strengthen scientific advice capacities in the French-speaking world. Hence the urgency, according to Rémi Quirion, chief scientist of Quebec, of finding the means to work with the continent, to increase exchanges between countries of the North and countries of the South which use French as their first language to interact between researchers and governments. Maintenance.
Capcov: Officially launched on November 3, the Réseau francophone en conseil scientifique will receive financial support from the Quebec Research Funds in the amount of $1.5 million over five years, to which will be added $800,000 allocated by university partners. What will be the precise missions of the RFICS?
Remi Quirion: There will be two parts. The first will consist in increasing the capacity in scientific advice in the Francophonie. Admittedly, this advice exists, but – and this is perhaps cultural – there are clearly few links (in any case much less than in Anglo-Saxon countries and in certain Asian countries) between researchers in scientific or university circles and policy makers.
The idea is therefore to help academics interested in setting up a scientific council and leading it, in particular by establishing exchanges with civil servants and government authorities. In the second part, it will always be a question of providing scientific advice in the French-speaking world, but taking into account the ways of acting in each region or each country, so that the advice is as multicultural as possible. We do not act in the same way depending on whether we are in Quebec, France, Cameroon or Senegal. And we do not yet take sufficient account of these cultural data.
What does taking cultural aspects into account actually mean?
There is a strong presence of English in the fields of innovation, technology and in scientific texts. That won’t change anytime soon. However, it is possible to better promote scientific publications in French. Universities should recognize more the value of publications in other languages. The council is therefore trying to develop what we call the “discoverability” of scientific content in French. Very often, on search engines, only publications in English or other languages appear, never those written in French. We have to find a way to change the situation. This will necessarily take some time, but it will promote better relations with the decision-makers, the senior officials in the governments, who, precisely, speak little English.
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What means do you intend to implement to garner the support of politicians, in particular on an African continent which is said to be more concerned about its daily survival?
We hope to work with universities on the continent, and bring together young doctoral students ready to develop these links between scientists and decision-makers. More concretely, this assumes that scientists are in residence in the ministries. Their presence could also allow decision-makers to better understand the usefulness of science, as was the case during the Covid-19 pandemic. We can demonstrate this for climate change and many other major societal challenges. Our most immediate challenge is to get government departments to take on young scientists.
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Does scientific Africa really exist?
It is obvious that the publications, like the scientific infrastructures, are rather to be found in the countries from North. We have nevertheless had proof that there was indeed a scientific Africa during the pandemic with, in particular, the fabulous work of characterizing the different variants of the virus in South Africa, or even with the impressive work of analyzing the pharmacology of certain plants carried out in Senegal with a view to developing new drugs. This is knowledge that we may have ignored in recent decades and that it is time to rediscover, in particular by encouraging new generations to embrace scientific careers.
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Where did your idea come from, too, of suggesting that African states increase their investments in research and development?
Yes, this is true for Africa, but also for the countries of the North and Latin America… Making budgetary choices is always a challenge for governments, which have shorter-term priorities. But investing in science, whether in the long or the short term, remains a profitable initiative. We will try to convince decision makers to invest in research and development.
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Does this also mean that the best way for Africa to catch up in science is to favor international cooperation?
Without a doubt. But above all, the projects should be carried out and developed from Africa, according to local needs, as the priorities there may be different from those of the countries of the North. Depending on the regions of the continent, the countries are more or less receptive to our approach aimed at creating a scientific Africa. We have good feedback from Benin and Senegal, but also from Maghreb countries. We hope that with the creation of the International Francophone Network in Scientific Advice, all French-speaking scientists will be able to interact, the Senegalese trying, for example, to convince the Ivorians of the need to develop together a more dynamic network in West Africa, so as to attract investors in research and innovation. Despite the economic difficulties, decision makers are realizing the importance of investing in innovation.
What challenges await this network?
Above all, it should not become a private club. It must be inclusive, open to all countries of the Francophonie, to all interested persons, whatever their gender. The other challenge will be to find mentors, ie people with experience of scientific advice in the West or on the continent, and who are ready to help the first generation of experts in this field to emerge. The needs are growing. We have seen it with the pandemic and climate change, which generate many challenges in our societies. No country can answer it everything only.