A Canadian health intern’s experience of the environmental policy-science interface in South Africa

The fourth annual Biodiversity Research and Evidence Indaba was held on 16-17 September in Pretoria, and welcomed participants who were scientists, policy-makers, and global partners. As an intern at the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE), it was my second week in the office and I was excited about participating in the event. With my background in health and experience in evidence synthesis, I was curious about what the Indaba would achieve. 

The event was kicked off by Ms Wadzi Mandivenyi making everyone feel comfortable and setting the scene for an engaging conversation about biodiversity research and policy. The atmosphere of the room felt very friendly after the initial ice breaker activity. This year’s Indaba focussed on land degradation. “We are meeting at a time where the threat for losing more and more of our land and biodiversity are at a high. We are at a tipping point, climate change is having an effect on biodiversity. Africa is in a better state than the rest of the developing world, but we still have space to make changes for the better,” said Mandivenyi. The Indaba saw presentations by scientists, policy-makers, and everyone in between who were all connected by the passion to use evidence to preserve the natural resources in South Africa. Below, I share some of the discussions and presentations that stood out for me over the two days. 

Dr. Tony Knowles presented the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change and land which has 107 authors from 52 countries and took two and a half years to produce. The key message from the report was the need for coordinated action to tackle climate change to simultaneously help improve agriculture, nutrition, and help to end hunger. 

While better land management can play a huge part in our response to climate change and the prevalence of the poor living in dryland areas, land management alone will not fix the challenges. In  the South African context, there is a clear need to improve data on the extent, type and intensity of land degradation to support resources; better understand the effectiveness and cost of response measures; understand drivers and the influence of supply chains and market choices; and finally understand the governance of our landscapes and who is managing which areas.  

Following this discussion, Dr. Luthando Dziba presented an IPBES assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa developed by 143 experts from 31 countries. Key findings from their report were that Africa’s natural assets are very unique: we are the only continent with large populations or megaherbivores mostly intact. The implication of this is that Africa’s natural richness and its wealth of indigenous and local knowledge should be used as an asset for sustainable development. “The richness of our biodiversity is underestimated,” argued Dziba, “because only a few studies assess the value of nature’s contribution to human well-being”. One such study that does assess is McKinnon et al’s 2016 systematic review of the evidence from developing countries which seems a starting point to Dziba who commented that “knowledge and data gaps must be filled”.

A photograph of four people who are part of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence Johannesburg team standing in front of a sign for the 4th annual Biodiversity and Evidence Indaba, hosted by the South African Department for Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries.
(From left to right) Natalie Tchakarian, intern from McMaster University; Dr Carina van Rooyen, CEE Joburg co-director; Natalie Tannous, researcher; and Likhwa Ncube, researcher.

Another fascinating discussion was given by Professor Eureta Rosenberg who spoke about the surprising social causes of land degradation and research priorities in mining. She commented that “we are very good at changing ecosystems sometimes for the worse but we are very bad at changing social systems for the better of our ecosystems”. Her project sought to explore the 6000 abandoned and derelict mines in South Africa in 2016 to understand why these areas were being abandoned. By South African law, mine areas need to show that they have the funds to rehabilitate the mine before getting permission for mining to begin. Despite this, in the last 20 years, no mine has been closed down and as such, mine areas have not been restored or rehabilitated. Rosenberg explained the massive potential that restoration held for creating more jobs, more sustainable livelihoods, and improved water security. She argued that there is sufficient capital but limited research on the issue and slow change in policy. Espousing the Indaba and formats like it as highly useful to address a challenge like the lack of restoration of mining land, Rosenberg highlighted the need for more systematic ways of gathering data to feed into restoration programmes. 

Speaking specifically about the science-policy interface (or as my hosts at ACE like to say the policy-science interface), Dr Nicholas King made the topic of land degradation really personal for all attendees. “Are we actually solving problems or are we just generating more and more information?”, King asked us in the audience. This articulated a thought I was having throughout the Indaba: presentations on the implementation of programmes were limited. King continued his presentation by making a connection between land degradation and food supply. It struck me how making this personal connection to something in my life made the issue of land degradation more real for me, even as someone from outside of this sector and country. I wondered if others felt the same way, and whether presenting findings in this way would motivate others to take concrete action. King spoke to the difficulty of assessing the effectiveness of environmental policies in the context of the changing environment. He argued that while successful policies have been and can be used as templates in different countries, one of the biggest challenges to overcome in terms of the science-policy interface is how we frame problems like climate change as an environmental issue when in reality, it is an environmental, social, and economic  issue. 

Following Dr King, my hosts at ACE who form part of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence South Africa centre – Dr Carina van Rooyen and Likhwa Ncube – presented evidence mapping as a science-policy interface tool. They shared with the audience the mega-map they are currently developing of all South African environmental research, how they are mapping this evidence according to policy priorities with the Department for Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, and the process of co-production with decision-makers they are following. I am not yet working on this project, but will start doing so next month, which is really exciting. 

There were Knowledge Cafes hosted after lunch on both days of the Indaba. These were positioned as platforms in which policy-makers and scientists could directly engage about specific topics that related to the presentations given before lunch. On the second day, I attended the cafe on Mechanisms for the policy-science interface and governance. From the conversations that were going on in the room, it was clear there is limited conversation between researchers and decision-makers. Some of the decision-makers from the DEFF were frustrated about the lack of access they have to research, which makes it difficult for them to use evidence in developing policies. One woman said she spent time travelling to the University of Johannesburg to use their library database on campus and it struck me how much effort that involved. 

Whether scientist or decision-maker, what stood out for me from the Indaba was the dedication of all who attended to preserving the biodiversity of South Africa, and the willingness to engage with one another to tackle these large environmental problems together. From this health intern’s perspective, evidence-informed decision-making is alive and well in the South African environment sector.

Co-Developing a Rapid Response Program with DEA: A QE Scholar’s Perspective

By: Steven Chen 

Scoping Review


QES pic

Logos of QES, McMaster Health Forum, and McMaster University, courtesy of Google Images


The Responsive Evidence Synthesis Service (RESS) is our attempt to co-produce with the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and the Department of Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluations (DPME). It serves as a structured effort to deliver rapid products to decision-makers – evidence products that are both timely to policy agendas while remaining transparent and systematic. Further, the project is rooted in our desire to share in capacity building by offering this service in-house.

While this type of rapid response service is common in the healthcare field, it is certainly an early strategy to promote evidence-use in the environmental sector. Thus, the intentions behind the scoping review was to gather evidence in an effort to build an evidence synthesis service in South Africa. Given that this project is fairly unique in being a service from an LMIC and a service in the environmental sector, we were curious to explore current models being used internationally and seeing if there were insights that may be translated into the environmental field. In particular, we were curious to investigate methodological differences ensuing in rapid products produced, operational considerations, along with programme experience with end-users.

The scoping review has cascaded into a number subsequent projects (many of which Kathy has taken on the reins during her internship), including:

1) A protocol for environmental evidence systematic map

2) A repository for extracted information regarding rapid response programs internationally
3) A qualitative questionnaire exploring end-user perspectives on the use of rapid evidence syntheses in the environmental sector

It is remarkable seeing the initial ideas for the scoping review expand in so many ways.

Reflections from my time in South Africa:

In retrospective, I am grateful for the profound role this internship has had in bridging my perspective on environmental sciences with the medical sciences.  As a medical student, we become utterly engrossed with health at the patient level. It is our priority to diagnose and treat the individual for health issues, often causing us to lose sight of surrounding concerns. This internship has sensitized me to consider health beyond the scope of the individual and of society.  In theory, environmentalists are just as much practitioners of health as physicians; but in the context of our ecosystem and the well-being of our planet!

On a cultural level, coming to Johannesburg, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a city of vibrant sights, exotic scents, and buzzing music. Wherever I explored, I found myself intimately exposed to the country’s complicated history intertwined with its renewed outlook towards equality. It was humbling to discover such tenacity and grit in a society still tense from events in recent memory. The values behind the work in developing a rapid response service are a testament to South Africa’s growing priority to move forward. I am delighted to have been able to contribute a small part in reaffirming this culture of transparent, evidence-based policy decisions.

Steven Chen is a Queen Elizabeth Scholar in Health Systems Strengthening from McMaster University’s Health Forum. Steven completed his research internship at ACE from May-August 2018. He is currently an MD Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Medicine.  

CEEJ goes to Paris and Pretoria in 2018

The Collaboration for Environmental Evidence, Johannesburg (CEEJ) centre has been lucky enough to attend to evidence conferences in 2018. The first was the annual Collaboration for Environmental Evidence conference, hosted this year by the French centre, the Foundation for Research on Biodiversity in Paris from 16-20 April. The conference – entitled ‘From knowledge to action: synthesising environmental evidence to inform decisions’ – was focussed specifically on evidence synthesis in the environmental sector. The CEEJ team delivered three presentations. The first was on findings of an evidence map produced in collaboration with colleagues at the Africa Centre for Evidence on ecosystem services for poverty alleviation, while the second presentation focussed on the role of qualitative evidence synthesis in the environmental sector. The final input from the CEEJ team was to co-host a session with Dr Alexandra Collins based at the Imperial College London on rapid response services. Here, the team shared our experience of piloting a responsive evidence synthesis with decision-makers in South Africa. We also detailed here our plans in developing this offering into a full service for the Department for Environmental Affairs in South Africa.

The second conference the CEEJ team has attended this year is Evidence 2018. Much broader in its sectorial and subject focus, CEEJ again presented our learning from doing a pilot rapid response for provincial decision-makers in South Africa, as well as some findings from the scoping review done by our first 2018 intern, Steven Chen of McMaster University. We expanded on the progress made against our plan to co-develop our experience into a full responsive evidence synthesis service. It was also here at Evidence 2018 where CEEJ networked with others interested in environmental evidence by inviting colleagues from across Africa attending the conference to submit their details to be added to our growing database of experts. We’re still looking to collaborate and grow our database of those interested in environmental evidence in Africa so if you haven’t yet done so, sign up to our database here!

We look forward to sharing our journey as we continue down this road: who knows where the CEEJ team will be in 2019, and what we’ll be presenting on then? Stay in touch to find out!

Reflection on Evidence Mapping Workshop

By Likhwa Ncube, part-time researcher at CEE Joburg, hosted by the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE).

Evidence mapping training hosted by the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) at the University of Johannesburg on 22-24 August 2018.

Recently, I attended a three-day evidence mapping training workshop run by the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) at the University of Johannesburg. Evidence mapping is increasingly attracting a lot of attention in the area of evidence-informed decision-making as a research method that provides thematic collections of evidence structured around a framework which schematically represents the types of interventions and outcomes of relevance to a particular sector (Snilstveit et al, 2015). Below, I share things that learned about the use of evidence mapping for decision-making.

1. We all map evidence, everyday

It turns out that evidence maps are a very common part of our daily lives, or at least the underlying principles of evidence maps are. We compare different types of evidence against each other and choose action or inaction based on the evidence we’ve gathered. For example, before placing a best on who will win the English Premier League soccer games, most sensible people first compare different forms of evidence to justify a decision on which team to bet for. We consider the form of the players of the team that we want to bet on, the opposing team, which players are is injured, which players are on a yellow card, and whether the team we want to bet on is playing on home ground or away.

These principles of reviewing and consolidating different types of evidence are no different to developing evidence maps for the policy or practice arena. Drawing from the betting example above, combining results from many different pieces of research evidence supports and informs decisions in a better way than decisions based on a single piece of research evidence: the process of grouping together various pieces of research evidence is called evidence synthesis. And evidence maps are a powerful tool to support evidence synthesis. The weighing and grouping together of evidence underlies the methodology behind evidence maps, which enhance the accessibility of vast amounts of evidence in how they visually represent the evidence using bubbles and donuts, for example.

2. Key steps involved in evidence mapping

Intuitively, the idea of a map for me was very far removed from bubbles and donuts. My background in maps was informed by maps and map reading from high school geography. In attending this training workshop, I was very excited to see how the idea of evidence fits into my pre-knowledge of maps from geography. I quickly realised that in as much as we were using the same word “maps” my geography background was not going to be that helpful here.

On the first day, the facilitator introduced the steps involved in creating an evidence map. The first and arguably the most important step stuck with me the most. We were told that when creating your evidence map, clarifying the research question and its scope comes first. A grip of the research problem, its parameters, what the question seeks to answer, its importance, relevance and limitations sets the evidence map creation-process into motion. This for me was clue number one that I had to lose my high school geography background.

I found the language of coding and its application to the creation of evidence maps daunting and technical. On the data extraction step we ran the process on a review software with in-built mapping capability: EPPI-Reviewer 4. This crucial step, if not done properly, might prove challenging to comprehend and to master all the intricate processes involved. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the EPPI-Reviewer 4 software first for this step. And no – codes here don’t relate to the latitude or longitude of a specific map location. Just in case you were wondering.

Geography maps and evidence maps answer fundamentally different questions. Typical types of research questions that evidence maps inform and/or answer: what works? How x works? What research exists about x? And the application of technology is central in responding to these questions in evidence maps. Although both sets of maps can be very useful to guide one where to go.

3. Was the whole process worth the trouble?

The technical components for evidence mapping mentioned above must not scare anyone away. I attended the three-day workshop and on day three, I emerged with my group’s completed practice evidence map. A disclaimer on my technical talents – this was my first software-tech engagement. In the fewest words, I am terrible with technology. Despite this, I sat for the workshop, engaged and on the final day, presented a completed practice map. The moral of this: if I can do it, then anyone can.

The importance of evidence mapping as a research tool cannot be overstated. Evidence maps play a vital role in the research and decision-making space to support policy-making, to demonstrate research priorities and gaps, and to manage knowledge as a repository of evidence on a subject easily accessible in times of decision-making.

I am glad I attended the workshop. I am now handy with a very important researching tool – priceless!

This post is co-blogged by AEN

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