Science and policy collaboration: The bird flu case

Yohanes Widodo, Yogyakarta | Thu, 07/21/2011 7:00 AM
The avian influenza virus, or bird flu, which has apparently reemerged, is reportedly spreading at an alarming pace.

A total of 64,095 chickens in 17 districts in South Sulawesi have died from the virus as of July 2011 (Kompas, July 13, 2011). It is the widest outbreak of the infection in Indonesia since a series of outbreaks during the period between 2003-2007.

At that time Indonesia was thought to be the country with the largest number of people infected by the bird flu virus in the world. Indonesian scientists struggled in addressing many uncertainties. While conducting their research, the scientists had to deal with the peripheral problems caused by the outbreak of the disease.

Most people, however, turned a blind eye to the seriousness of the disease. Data from the National Commission for avian influenza and pandemic preparedness said that 97 percent of Indonesians at the time were aware of bird flu, but only 15 percent of them regarded the disease as a direct threat to themselves and their families (The Jakarta Post, July 6, 2005).

According to research on science and policy collaboration on bird flu conducted in Bali in 2008, public ignorance and indifference were cited as the primary dangers of bird flu that had hampered government efforts to control the virus.

If there had been adequate collaboration between government, researchers and journalists to educate the public about the dangers of bird flu, the outbreak might have ended differently.

In brief, the research found three conclusions. First, there was a collaboration gap between science and policy. As government policies claimed to have been based on the best available scientific advice or risk assessments, there must have been good collaboration between science and policy. But in reality it did not happen. There was a gap.

Some factors hampered collaboration, such as lack of facilities, funding and infrastructure; political pressure on scientists and their conclusions, political apathy and the prevailing atmosphere of indifference. As for apathy, although levels were difficult to gauge, the consequences were the same.

Second — regarding the lack of public participation — it is true that collaborative approaches to decision-making, fact finding and policy formulation are important in addressing several key dilemmas that scientists and decision makers face (Lenard, 2003). Yet, involving public participation is also a potential solution.

Public participation is very important because it can encourage people to set up quick response mechanisms and increase public awareness of the danger of the virus so they can stop the spread of the virus by themselves — as it has already happened in Beraban Village, near Tanah Lot Temple, Bali.

Third would be the role of the media. Media plays an important role in the relationship, collaboration and debate between science and policy, and sits in the middle.

Of course, there is a limitation regarding the way the media covers an event, because most of the time news can only present fragments of what is really happening and what might come.

Media then, by nature, is insufficient to provide a clear and detailed account of an emerging outbreak, such as bird flu (Fitri, 2007).

In a situation in which a knowledge gap exists between parties that participate in policy development and policy intervention processes because of scientific uncertainty and of high public concern, media has an important role in enabling participation of citizens and in helping and encouraging policy makers to close the gap by providing comprehensive stories on emerging issues.

This will entail integrated actions for more proactive approaches by the scientific community, media and society.

In the case of bird flu, scientists have to work with media because government tends to cover up this issue due to pressure from business interests of maintaining a “good image”.

For example, Bali administrators said that during the outbreak they were annoyed by media reports on the issue because it created excessive public anxiety and damaged the “good image” of the resort island that just recovered from two deadly terrorist attacks (Hermawan and Sabarini, 2007).

Media also has an important role in advocating for scientists when they were pressured by the government. In this case, undaunted by these restrictions, media gave more space in their publications to scientists, such as Chairul Anwar Nidom, an animal health expert from Airlangga University, East Java, and I Gede Ngurah Mahardika, a virologist and scientist from Udayana University, Denpasar Bali. They even became more popular as bird flu specialists after they pressured the government to address the disease properly.

Thus, in the case of bird flu, I found that scientists not only had to struggle with science but also politics. In this condition, the challenge for scientists was more difficult because they were confronted with negligence, ignorance, doubt, uncertainty and political pressure. As a result, they could not do their jobs effectively.

Conflict among scientists, policy makers and the public occurs because of the presence of criticism and misunderstanding. They all use different discourses in identifying knowledge and constructing persuasive arguments.

For politicians, bird flu is a sensitive issue that can ruin the image of the country, so it must be treated and published in a very careful manner. Politicians also require scientists to take a number of steps before they are able to release the result of their scientific research to the media. This included an internal review by the university’s administrators and experts, external review and approval from all relevant government agencies.

In conclusion, it was the collaboration gap between governments and researchers — policy and science — that led past interventions of the avian influenza outbreak in this country to go wrong, be ineffective and be far away from public involvement.

The writer is a lecturer at Communication Science Department, Atma Jaya University, Yogyakarta.

This article was published in the Jakarta Post (

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