When the first academy of the sciences was established in Rome in 1603, its founders called it the Accademia dei Lincei—naming it after the lynx, an animal known for its keen vision.
More than 400 years later, as policymakers grapple with complex problems such as global pandemics, climate change, poverty and unsustainable development, scientists’ clear-eyed insights are as crucial as ever.
Yet access to scientific knowledge is not equitable.
To boost the role of science-based policymaking in least developed countries (LDCs), the United Nations (UN) Technology Bank is part of an effort to establish new academies of the sciences and to support longstanding ones.
Our work is beginning to bear fruit: This week, Malawi launches its first-ever academy of the sciences. It joins the ranks of Angola, Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of the Congo launched academies in 2020.
These academies convene the leading scientists and innovators in each country as well as in the diaspora. They serve as a conduit between scientists and government officials, policymakers, and diplomats.
The academies provide independent, evidence-based advice to governments and intergovernmental organisations, including the UN. They inform governments and industry as they address socio-economic challenges, promote sustainable development and incorporate appropriate technologies to transform their economies.
But these academies cannot fulfill their potential unless they operate independently. Governments must ensure that the y remain uncompromised by political or economic interests, safeguarding their autonomy, even when they articulate uncomfortable truths.
Governments must also ensure these academies of the sciences have the resources they need to do their work.
Science is a powerful diplomatic tool. By seeking evidence-based solutions to global problems, nations can work together to improve international relations, defend human rights, build bridges, participate in multilateral processes and devise strategies to address global challenges.
Of course, many of the most urgent problems the world faces transcend national borders. They are not for one country to solve alone, but require interdisciplinary and international cooperation.
As such, Malawi and other new academies should affiliate with institutions like The World Academy of the Sciences and other networks of academies that bring together developing and least developed countries to build strength in science, especially in this final push to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Working together, academies will also take a regional approach to solving complex problems and meeting ambitious goals such as the African Union’s Agenda 2063, a strategy for inclusive and sustainable growth.
At the same time, the more established academies will mentor newer ones, bolstering their ability to take on advisory roles in their own nations and contribute their experience to global discussions.
Academies are an important way for scientists to build leadership and influence, interact with national, regional, and global peers, exchange information and share best practices. But academies must vigilantly ensure that they do not reinforce existing disparities in science and engineering.
Instead, they must proactively work to ameliorate inequalities in the sciences by recruiting a range of members, especially women and young scientists.
The academies will also cultivate tomorrow’s scientists by advocating for and participating in science, technology, engineering and mathematic (Stem) education for youth.
The UN Technology Bank will continue to support these academies as they plan for the future, mobilise resources and strengthen their links to the public and private sector.
We are also proud to have launched earlier this year a programme that provides early-career scientists from 46 LDCs working in biomedicine, biotechnology and agriculture with exchange fellowships designed to build their scientific capacities.
I am confident that by strengthening the role of science in society and policy, the Academy of Sciences in Malawi and its counterparts in other LDCs, will help leaders effectively confront complex challenges and seize opportunities as they map their nations’ futures with an eye toward sustainable and equitable development.