(2019) The state of science advice in policy-making in Ethiopia – Zenebe Mekonnen

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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. 

BY: Zenebe Mekonnen –  Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute


Science advice is one of the bases for policy-making for governments. Existing and emerging challenges such as climate change policies required science base policy-making than traditional form of policy-making. In order to come up with effective policy outcomes, policy advice should be context specific and communicated in more understandable way to the policy-makers and the communities.

The main objective of the paper is to review current knowledge and use of science policy advice that can be applied in policy-making process in the context of Ethiopia. To fulfill this, knowledge products form journal articles, policy documents, working papers, policy briefs and other gray literature were reviewed to determine the state of the art for science policy advice use opportunities and challenges.

Although there are communication gaps between researchers and policy-makers, currently, there is more improvement in the use of science advice in Ethiopia in policy-making process in line with sustainable developments efforts. Science advisory process should identify what causes the problems, who are the right advisors, how to balance diverse scientific views and treat their uncertainties, how to communicate and use the advice, and assessing the fruitfulness of the given advice.

Acquiring the science advice through the aligned advisory process, narrowing the researchers and policy-makers divide could improve the use and effectiveness of science policy advice in policy-making process and brings insightful policy outcomes for sustainable development.


As global challenges and their complexities increase, the interface between research and policy-making has become widened and gained more relevance. Despite that science advice is playing an increasing role in the formulation of policy and decision-making, it has been lacking in Ethiopia until recently. Policy-making process should begin with research findings and stakeholders’ participation (Tessema 2000).

Neither sustainable development nor effective policy formulation is made without the basis of science. In this recognition, Ethiopia has establish the National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy in 2012 to promote research that is geared towards technology learning and adaptation, defining the national science and technology landscape and strengthening linkages among the different actors in the national innovation system (Mamo et al. 2014).

The launch of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences was another institute to supplement and strengthen quality research and offer science advice for policy-making in Ethiopia (Nordling 2010). The scientific community is highly consulted and called up to give advice to government policy-making across the world on ranges of issues (Head 2010, OECD 2015, Tilahun et al. 2015, Langer et al. 2016, Grimm et al. 2018). Although science is truly at the center of many imperative policy issues, this does not mean that scientific evidence is the only consideration in policy decision making being the existence of other issues that might make the scientific evidence uncertain, e.g., climate change modeling evidences.

There are three schools of thoughts of policy advice (Paine and Sadan 2015, Grimm et al. 2018, Geyer and Ansell 2017). The first is the decisionist thought characterized by the dominance of policy-makers in decision-making by which policy makers only selectively use scientific input to the extent that they deem it necessary. This thought is reflected by the wording “evidence-informed policy-making” indicating that there are also other factors influencing policy-making decisions.

The second is the technocratic thought which is characterized by scientific knowledge directing the decision-making process whereby a researcher’s recommendations and scientific input are thus decisive for political decision-making. It is reflected by the wording “evidence-based policy-making” indicating that scientific results are a determining factor for political decision making.

The third is the pragmatic thought that views researchers and policy-makers as independent but as constantly engaging and communicating with each other. In this case, researchers and policy-makers should be contributing knowledge from their respective sphere. In the Ethiopian context, the first school of thought seems to be predominating.

Science-policy linkage for sustainable development

Evidence-informed policy-making is important for sustainable development in the specified sectors. Failure to do so will result in ineffective policy outcomes (Duffeis et al. 2010, Simmons 2015, Font and Mitche11 2017, Gebeyehu et al. 2017, Newman 2017, Oqubay 2018, Welteji 2018). Currently the government of Ethiopia is much relaying on science advice to make development strategies and policy-making rather than on indigenous policy-making process (e.g. Mitchell and Font 2017, CPI 2018). Some of the efforts in science-policy linkages by the government of Ethiopia can be exemplified by the following:

  • The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was implemented after a series of scientific advices. The submission of the design was made after the evidence from three surveys: survey 1, between 1956 and 1964 by US Bureau of Reclamation; survey 2, in October 2009 and survey 3, between July-August 2010 by technical experts. The surveys were done to give evidence-informed advice to the government of Ethiopia on the geology, social, economic and political contexts up on the construction of the dam;  
  • The Boundary and Identity Issues Commission has been established to bring scientific based advice to the government so that to resolve and set strategies on those issues. “The objectives of the commission are to submit recommendation to the Public, the House of the federation, the House of People’s Representatives and the Prime minister through the analysis of causes and causes of administrative boundaries conflicts, self government and identity issues in participatory, explicit, inclusive and scientific manner.”;
  • The use of disaster and risk profile data to align strategies of emergency and early warning system in the country;
  • The establishment of different technical advisory standing committees under different ministries and/or sectors to ensure that sectorial issues are included when national policies are formulated;
  • The use of population census for the development of population policy of the country;
  • The government of Ethiopia has established different institutions that involve in research to provide evidence-informed policy-making for sustainable development
Table 1: Institutional and policy-makers linkage for evidence-informed policy making in Ethiopia (FDRE 2011, 2018, Chipeta et al. 2015, World Bank 2015)
Evidence providing institutions Policy-making bodies Evidence- informed Policy
Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, Agricultural Transformation Agency, Universities Ministry of Agriculture, Council of Ministries Agriculture policy
√  Ethiopian Public Health Research Institute, Universities Ministry of health, Council of Ministries Health policy
√  Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute, Universities Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission, Council of Ministries Environment policy, Forest Policy, Climate change policy


Researchers and policy-makers divide

There are communication gaps between researchers and policy-makers in Ethiopian context so that information is not transferred and advocated from one to the other. This leads to less evidence to be gained by the policy-makers to make evidence-informed policy-making. The generation of evidence has been engulfed with political motivations and government structures are accustomed to use biased evidences.  Lack of funding for research is also another concern that has hindered researchers in developing countries to do sound research that provide evidence for policy makers. Factors that could widened the divide includes but not limited to the following (Jones et al. 2008, Godfrey et al. 2010, Strydom et al. 2010, Grimm et al. 2018).

  • Policy makers might incline to their own perceptions of policy problems by underestimating the potential of scientific contributions despite those scientific advisors could overestimate the relevance of their recommendations.
  • Policy makers wish simple answers from research to implement and need quick solutions to pressing policy challenges while research needs a theoretical foundation in order to be able to depict the complexity of problems while ensuring applicability.
  • Irrespective of scientific research tends to take a relatively long time due to requirements for evidence-based scientific work, policy makers needs relatively short period of time to ensure policy-making.
  • Researchers seek to contribute to the understanding of causal relations in contrary that policy-makers use an operative language.
  • Researcher deems what they recommend is the right one despite those policy-makers tending to use research to legitimize political decisions or citizens it.
  • Scientific advisors might recommend comprehensive reforms to address complex situations while these might be rejected by policy makers.

Sectorial Standing technical and advisory committees

As shown in figure 2, science advisory process takes five stages (Alemu T 2015). Farming a question is the first of those stages and begins with the question-what causes the problem(s)?  Since the cause of a problem might be multifaceted, it requires the evolvement of multidisciplinary experts to analyze the problem and give concrete advice to the government. The assessment of a problem should be based on stakeholders’ needs so that the advice should be directed for the government to satisfy those needs. The science advice should be framed not only on research questions but also with parallel policy questions.

After the questions are framed, who should be the right advisors to the framed questions is key for the government soliciting the advice. Advisors could be individual experts, research institutions and international consultants. However, this is mainly depends on the complexity of the framed questions. In the context of Ethiopia, the standing advisory committees are selected by higher level government officials and have given ear-tagged government mandated objectives. This type of assignment may be biased and fail to give the right advice to the policy-makers as it might not include the right experts from the right field during selection in the advisory committee. Moreover, it also shadows the independence of scientific advisors which leads to give scientifically unjustified advice which is inclined to political standpoint.

Scientific views are not homogeneous and scientific results are not always certain. Balancing diverse scientific view points and treating their uncertainties is important in producing the scientific advice. Reaching on consensus on the different views emanated from different field of expertise and managing the uncertainties is critical matter in science for policy. The analysis of diversified views of the experts in the advisory group and uncertainties may not be favored by policy-makers as those issues are more complicated while the policy-makers need more simple and short-term scientific views. Moreover, once scientific advices are produced by the advisory group, the reproducibility of the results and the quality of the advices, in most cases, is not evaluated for its quality by the advisory group themselves or other independent group of experts not involved in the advisory group.

Whatever an excellent scientific advice has been produced, it is not worthwhile unless properly communicated and advocated in ways that exhaust the possibilities of mutual understanding. There are lots of research results in research institutes and centers in Ethiopia (e.g. Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute) which are ‘warming the shelves’. However, these institutes did not have dedicated communication officers to reach those results to the policy makers, or else the distance between the researchers and policy makers is very wide to do such communication. Most of the research results are not prepared in short and understandable ways in the form of summary for policy makers. In the case of the advice from mandated standing committees, the advice is communicated to the concerned government institution with final report but there is some lack of transparency to be made public. 

Figure 2: The stages of the science advisory process


Impact assessment for the scientific advice provided is an important step to improve the advisory process and to the effectiveness of the advice in the policy outcomes. This has been determined by how the advice was communicated properly. There are only few cases that the advisory group could evaluate the impact of their scientific advice up on the implementation in the policy-making processes and outcomes. Rather, in most cases, the role of the advisory group ends after the provision of the advice to the policy makers unless there is some sort of misinterpretation in the advice. This reluctance has been developed by the advisory group (individual experts, standing committees or mandated institutions) because even if they did the assessment of the given advices, government could not change policy based on the recommendations of the advisory group.


To work for evidence-informed policy-making, timely and quality data should be made accessibly to policy makers in more easily understandable way by which they are motivated and develop capacity to use the evidence in the policy-making process. In some cases, regardless of the available scientific evidence, policy makers may not use the evidence as research evidence is not the only factor that can influence decision-making at a policy and practice level. On top of this, scientific views are heterogeneous and scientific results are not always certain.  Here what is important in science for policy is to reach on consensus on the different views emanated from different field of expertise and managing the uncertainties.

To resolve ambiguities and challenges allied to evidence-informed policymaking, there is a need to showcase the evidence to the public for security building; follow a clear methodology to examine the generalizability of context-dependent data; share priorities with researchers to elicit more informed and actionable evidence; the role of evidence in policymaking should be transparent that can reduce the divide between researchers and policy-makers.


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