Wednesday June 25 2014

Making laws on science and technology: A case of Ugandan and UK legislators

Female MPs visit a trial on GM bananas at a

Female MPs visit a trial on GM bananas at a research station. When debating laws and policies issues regarding science and technology, it is vital for them to be equipped with the required knowledge. Photo BY LOMINDA AFEDRARU 

By Lominda Afedraru

It is important for lawmakers in Uganda to learn lessons from how legislators in other parts of the world, like in the UK, share and use scientific knowledge.

The UK Parliament has a component for science and technology. There is a technical team which sensitises members of the House of Lords and House of Commons on issues related to science and technology including agricultural science.
Dr Chris Tyler, the director, UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, while explaining to African journalists who were on a Bioscience for Farming in Africa fellowship, said his team has a calendar for their activities.

“We have a quarterly scientific magazine where we tackle different topics such as health, agriculture, nanotechnology, astronomy, physics, environment. As a team, we know that they are the right people to disseminate this information to the farmers when they go to their constituents,” he said.

This use of research-based evidence acts as advice to the legislators because it provides summarised information on a particular topic. In the case of agricultural science, it includes issues related to plant genetics, research on fish species, livestock and poultry keeping among others.

Keeping track
The technical team encourages the parliamentarians to work with scientists in the UK and other parts of the world, and they are in position to link the two parties. The administrative team conducts about 30 scientific fellowships every year for support staff, legislators and scientists from around the world.

Both House of Lords and House of Commons have a research library where members can get information about a particular subject.
In the case of biotechnology, the team keeps track of what is going on in research institutes. They, in turn, provide the lawmakers with this information. Cases in point are the biotech wheat variety, which is at research level, and Bt maize, which is grown as an animal feed.

Share knowledge
The team also works with agricultural extension workers to collect data on the farming system in the UK. They also receive visiting legislators from a number of African countries including Uganda to share experiences.

Robert Kafeero Sekitoleko, who was deputy chairperson, Committee of Science and Technology, acknowledged that the committee members travelled twice to the UK Parliament mainly to learn and share knowledge in regard to agricultural science.
He said: “[They have] a follow up method done on database for the farmers. This data explains when farmers are supposed to plant crops within the required season, how they can keep their records accurate using a standard information technology software. They are systematic in keeping records including records of research work going on research institutes.”

But this is not the case at the Ugandan Parliament given the slow pace at which issues related to science and technology are handled. But the committee is writing a concept note specifically on the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to assist their work.

Different levels
This concept note will be forwarded to the parliamentary ICT Committee and the Ministry of ICT for an action plan.

“In our concept note, we expect the ministry to create a database detailing which planting periods are recommended to the farmers, in case of drought, how they can carry out irrigation and this information is relayed to farmers through their mobile phones,” Sekitoleko said.

For biotechnology, he added that it is necessary for stakeholders to understand it a little more and accept to regulate it other than throwing it out.
Mathias Kasamba, the chairperson Committee of Agriculture, points out that “we have not reached the level of publishing scientific magazines but we usually have dialogues with farmers and scientists either at their farms and in the research institutes or during sensitisation meetings.”

The committee has monthly meetings where they involve the press to pass on some of the information affecting farmers. When they go out in the field, they report back to the committee clerk who generates an agenda which can be tabled before Members of Parliament for debate.

Address challenges
Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is of the view that empowering Members of Parliament about science and technology is a good initiative. This is because challenges resulting from effects of climate change can be resolved through science and technology.
“In UK, farmers are faced with disease challenges like potato blight and wheat stem rust.

In countries like Uganda, there is cassava brown streak virus, several pests and diseases affecting banana varieties, meaning it is upon us the legislators to help farmers address these challenges,” Owen said. “We have a challenge of stunted growth in children globally as a result of food deficiency, products such as golden rice, drought tolerant maize, soya bean and others which are being bred using biotechnology will help address food insecurity,”