World Science Forum – Social Justice and Dignity for Africa through Science

On Friday, the World Science Forum (WSF) in South Africa ended with the closing ceremony, where, according to tradition, the Declaration of the Forum was adopted. The speakers of the event highlighted in their speeches that science provides Africa and the whole world the opportunity to successfully tackle the existing and emerging issues originating from climate change, social injustices and inequalities.

2022. december 14.

“The World Science Forum is a celebration of international cooperation and its critical role of enabling scientific progress. But above all, it is a celebration of our commitment to science for social justice, evident from the vibrant debates and discussions over the past few days,” said Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation at the World Science Forum Dinner.

As one of the final acts of the conference, the participants adopted the Declaration of the Forum on Science for Social Justice. It is a tradition to summarise the main messages of the WSF in a Declaration of the WSFdocument, in which the parties present declare that they will strive to implement the conclusions of the congress in practice. “With humanity being confronted by key global challenges such as pandemic disease, climate change, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, conflict, migration and persistent poverty, science, more than ever, is called upon to make a critical contribution to create a more equal, fair and just world and to set an ambitious agenda to ensure a better future for generations to come. This call for action informed the choice of ‘Science for Social Justice’ as the theme for the WSF 2022, a responsibility for all concerned with and involved in the scientific enterprise,” reads one of the first paragraphs of the Declaration.

Since the initial World Conference on Science, an intergovernmental event, took place in 1999 and launched an event series which was going to evolve into the World Science Forum, the Forum has remained the single most important global platform where the scientific community, the decision-makers from the world of politics, industry, representatives of civil society and the science media can gather to discuss the most pressing challenges facing the world. It was with this history in mind that at the closing ceremony, several prominent members of the African and worldwide scientific community spoke and reflected on what the World Science Forum meant to them.

“The World Science Forum provided a very prominent opportunity for the scientific community to connect with a diversity of partners. The conference has provided a platform to highlight the opportunities that can be harnessed to build a just, equitable and transformative scientific enterprise,” said Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, CEO of the National Research Foundation, in his remarks. “At the gatherings with funding agencies from all across the world, we managed to have citizen engagements in a number of scientific topics that are critical in the advance of science.”

The same message is presented in the Declaration: “Our world requires a deliberate and renewed partnership between science and civil society, ensuring a science agenda that will enable a just transition. Science must be at the heart of a transformative mitigation and adaptation agenda, with particular emphasis on the needs of developing countries and underprivileged communities that are most vulnerable. This will require a closer and more productive partnership between the natural sciences and social sciences and the humanities. The science community must ensure that scientific research, modelling and innovation feature prominently in discussions on investment to combat and mitigate climate change, particularly with regard to loss and damage budgets, so that the voice of science is not lost to political and economic interests.”

This World Science Forum was special partly because it was hosted for the first time ever by an African country. This fact was mentioned in practically every speech delivered at the closing ceremony.

“This conference showcased much of the ground-breaking research, and it demonstrated that this is a great forum for the science of social justice, the science of climate justice and human dignity. But I also saw here the potential in the indigenous knowledge systems in Africa,” said Peggy Efua Oti-Boateng, Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences. The director raised the question, “‘How have African scientists achieved success?’ We did it through collaboration that is transparent, that supports co-design and co-implementation, and that comes to respect our diversity. I really want to thank the European Commission as when they funded over 45 researchers with half a million dollars each, they really demonstrated what it means to have a real and true partnership.”

Other speakers reflected on the global context, and on the main issues which must be managed all over the world.

“In my opinion, we struggle all over the world with the same problems, and it doesn’t matter how much science we put into them and how much we engage with policymakers and the public about it, we are ‘not there yet’. And I was glad that most of them were mentioned during the World Science Forum,” argued Clarissa Rios Rojas, a science diplomat and Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. “The first problem is political. We are always thinking about the votes and being re-elected at the next elections, so we are not having a longer-than-five-years plan.”

The scientist and science advocate added, “The second problem is corruption. In my country, Peru, I believe this is the worst disease we have. Corruption prevents any progress in any of the issues that we have been discussing at the World Science Forum. Another problem is the lack of ethics and lack of diversity and inclusion. I am especially glad that these issues have been raised many times during the conference. And one of the greatest problems is that we do not have the capacity to grasp complex issues. This is true for the risks as well: we cannot analyse risks systematically from different angles.”

And of course, communicable diseases, such as COVID, were not left out either.

“One of the key questions for me is science for human dignity. The role of science in fighting poverty, unemployment, inequality and exclusions. I can see this practically happening in fighting infectious diseases. Over the last almost twenty years, we have invested in research and development infrastructure and people for this fight. And when COVID-19 hit, these resources had to be mobilised in 25 African countries,” – said Michael Musakiriza Makanga, Executive Director of European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP). EDCTP is a public-public partnership between countries in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, supported by the European Union. “I am representing here the EDCTP, which is one of the flagship programmes of European-African partnerships. It is accelerating research and capacity development for fighting the medical problems that have affected people in Sub-Saharan Africa. These problems are mainly infectious diseases.”

“Science should not only advance social justice, it should be inspired and identified by the values of social justice, such as greater transparency and inclusivity. This will require a renewed commitment to Open Science and research integrity. Working to renew the scientific enterprise will also transform society and advance humanity,” summarises the Declaration regarding the main aspirations of science and scientists.

In his closing remarks the host of the event Daan du Toit, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation at the South African Department of Science and Innovation, conveyed the gratitude of the Department to all the WSF partner organizations for their invaluable support, in particular to the highly prestigious founding organizations such as UNESCO, the International Science Council (ISC) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and expressed his special thanks to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, itself a founding entity, for its dedicated collaboration in the organization of the Forum.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences as the organization providing the secretariat for the Forum has been for the last 20 years and continues to be a key contributor to the preparation and arrangement of the Forum, thereby reminding the world of the Forum’s Hungarian origins.

In his farewell address MTA President Tamás Freund, in his capacity as President of the World Science Forum, announced that the Forum would be returning to Budapest for its next edition in 2024, and invited all the participants of the Forum to continue their dialogue there.