Uganda calls for science-based biotechnology legislation

By Joshua Raymond Muhumuza

April 17, 2018

Residents of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, woke up to unusual scenes April 14 as scores of people flocked to the streets to join the rest of the world in the 2nd annual global March for Science.

Scientists, students, policy makers, farmers and civil society groups were among about 100 science enthusiasts who braved a heavy tropical downpour as they joined a peaceful but passionate procession to express their support for science and advocate for its role in policy decisions.

Starting out in 2017 as a primal cry against newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies and their potential impact in science, the March for Science quickly gained global clout. A year later, passion is still building among science advocates, transforming a single day of grassroots mass protest into sustained global expressions of support for science.

The Kampala march was intended to hold political leaders accountable for passing equitable, evidence-based policies that serve all people in all communities. “We shall march to remind our policy makers to restore the place of science and evidence in key decision making,” a statement from the organizers read in part.

An inquisitive onlooker pulled me aside to ask, “What’s this (march) about?” After a few minutes of offering as crisp an explanation as I could, I invited him to reflect on the messages on the many placards participants were carrying. This ephemeral exercise also got me thinking. Why were all these people marching? Were there any individual reasons, an overarching compulsion?

Teasing out the different reasons for marching from a 100-strong crowd was somewhat daunting. Advocating for evidence-based policy choices, valorizing support for science and scientists, amplifying the role of science in climate change mitigation, ensuring food security and improved livelihoods, promoting science literacy, and endorsing science communication and outreach were some of the many reasons fronted by marchers in Kampala.

One overbearing reason that compelled a significant number of participants to march was to call on the government to pass the National Biosafety Bill — legislation that would permit the commercialization of GM crops in Uganda. In a country where anti-GM activism and protracted political debate continues to deny farmers the right to choose innovative agricultural technologies like GM crops developed by the country’s scientists, the march offered a platform for stakeholders to call their leaders to action.

“Science plays a pivotal role in decision-making. Our government needs to prioritize it in all policy processes,” said co-organizer Timothy Nyanza, a biotechnology student at Makerere University.

“In Uganda, science has played a major role in eradicating diseases, modernizing agriculture and creating new industries and jobs,” said March special guest Papa Were Salim, guild president at Makerere University. “This is a critical time to stand up for science, as it’s under attack both globally and locally by anti-science movements.”

Expectations are rising worldwide for scientists advocating for the inclusion of science in public policy to explain their data and direct policymakers to the best available evidence. The situation in Uganda is no different. Policy makers, farmers and other stakeholders alike have come out asking scientists to simplify and “publicize” their research findings. Scientists feel they have made noteworthy strides in response.

For those few hours in Kampala, though, the clarion call to policy makers was clear: let scientific evidence, not ideologies or politics, guide policy decisions.

One marcher’s poster summed it all up nicely: “Let not our moral principles guide what science we believe and what evidence we reject.”

The March for Science in Kampala was organized and supported by Makerere University Biotechnology Students Association, Uganda Alliance for Science, Tropical Research Institute for Development Innovations (TRIDI), Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC), Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC), Science Foundation for Development Livelihoods (SCIFODE) and concerned students and science allies from Makerere University.

Joshua Raymond Muhumuza is a research assistant with Uganda Biosciences Information Center.