(2019) State of science advice to governments in African countries: Case study of the National Assembly of Nigeria – Oluwasola Omoju

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In February 2020, INGSA-Africa announced the winners of their 2019 Essay Competition.
Shortly after, the world was forced to pivot entirely to the threat of COVID-19 and regrettably, these essays were not celebrated in the way we would have liked
So even though the local and global context has now changed so much, we wanted to release the winning essays from 2019 and hope that you find them insightful despite the delay in their publication. 

Oluwasola E. Omoju
Department of Research and Training
National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS)
National Assembly, Abuja, Nigeria

The important role of science in government decision and policy making is beginning to gain attraction in Nigeria, especially at the national government level. Before now, government decisions are rarely taken with inputs from scientists or researchers, as the government does not clearly see the strategic role of scientists in providing evidence-informed advice for its policies and decisions. Even in some cases where inputs from scientists are solicited, they are usually done on adhoc basis and mostly for the executive arm of government because of its key role in formulating and implementing key government policies. This essay analyses the use of scientific evidence in the legislative arm of government in Nigeria.

Recent years have seen the appreciation of the role of the parliament in law and policy making, and the need for evidence-informed policy making in the legislature. This lead to the creation of the Policy Analysis and Research Project (PARP) in 2003 to serve as a capacity building and research arm of the Nigerian national parliament. PARP conducts research and analysis to support the work of the National Assembly by providing policy advice to members and committees of the Assembly. The project (PARP) became a full-fledged institute (National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies) with legal backing in 2011.

The law establishing the Institute mandates it to carry out research and policy analysis on national economic, political, social, legal and development issues; and conduct training for members of the legislature and their aides with the ultimate goal of boosting the technical capacity of the legislature in making viable decisions and effective policies. In my seven years at the Institute, it has recorded substantial success in providing science advice and training programs for members of the Nigerian National Parliament and their aides. It also faces a number of challenges in the course of performing this role.

One of the core areas that the Institute provides the parliament with important scientific advice is the review and analysis of the annual budget. Before the Institute was established, the National Assembly does not have an effective and scientific means of determining the plausibility and realism of the assumptions and figures in the annual budget presented by the executive arm of government (President). However, the team of economists and legal experts in the Institute currently undertake analysis and research to determine if the provisions of the budget are in line with the stated development goals of the government and if the basic assumptions underlying the figures in the budget are economically reasonable.

The results of the research is used by the parliament, particularly the Appropriation Committee, to engage with the executive arm of the government. Other committees in the parliament, armed with the findings of the research and analysis, are able to actively and intellectually engage with the Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) under their jurisdiction and provide effective oversight over them. The National Assembly largely follows the recommendations and policy advice of the Institute’s experts on the national budget and its underlying assumptions.

Another area where the Institute provides science advice to the parliament is through bill analysis. All legislative bills under consideration at the National Assembly are reviewed and analysed by the Institute’s team of economists and legal experts to determine their compliance with the provisions of the constitution and their potential socio-economic implications when they become law. In some cases, the legislator sponsoring the bill is not aware that there is an existing law that address the issue the bill attempts to address or the provisions of the bill is not in alignment with the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.

For example, a bill to “establish a trust fund to provide grants and loans the Nigerian textile industry” was dropped by the legislature after research and analysis shows that funding is not the major challenge facing the industry. Without the science advice occasioned by research, the bill would have successfully passed the parliament, the trust fund would have been established, but it will have no significant effect on reviving the comatose textile industry in Nigeria. In contrast, the current efforts to amend the law establishing the Energy Commission of Nigeria to give priority to renewable energy was based on a policy brief written by the Institute experts which shows the competitiveness of renewable energy in addressing the electricity shortages in the country.

The availability of scientific advice to members of the National Assembly has empowered some members of the legislature to be emboldened to speak up in the assembly chamber and engage in deliberations on key issues. Members of parliament are confident of the scientific advice given to them by scientists and researchers and as a result feel confident to speak up in the parliament because they feel they are “armed with facts”. Their constituents also see them as contributing to national debate and representing them well. Following from this experience, some members of the legislature have personally solicited for research evidence to support their legislations, presentations and/or motions.

There are also notable challenges in the provision of science advice by the Institute and its experts to the legislature. The first of this challenge is the issue of timing. It is common for legislature to demand for scientific evidence on any issue in very short notice, usually hours or days. This gives the researcher very limited time to conduct rigorous and comprehensive research on the subject. Hence, the researchers have to rely on quick desktop research or evidence from other climes or previous research. This is a major challenge encountered in the process of providing scientific evidence to law makers in Nigeria.

A second challenge is political influence. Law makers sometimes often jettison scientific evidence in favour of political consideration. For example, when our research results show that a particular project included in the annual budget is not viable and should not be funded, the law maker in the constituency which the project is to be sited will often use their political influence to ensure the project is funded, despising the empirical evidence.

A third issue is inadequate capacity and perception of competence by members of the legislature. Members of the parliament respect scientific evidence if the provider of the evidence is a famous scientist/researcher or works in an international organisation. Thus, local researchers are deemed to be not so competent to provide credible research evidence. Closely related to this is the limited capacity of researchers to engage and communicate with the law makers in simple ways they understand while delivering the key message of their research.

Going by the experience described above, science advice is gaining prominence at every level and arm of the government in Nigeria and conscious efforts should be taken to ensure that there is a formal relationship and collaboration mechanism between scientists/researchers and policy makers, and scientists should be trained on how to engage and communicate with policy makers.