Tuesday, January 18

Bureaucracy is stifling research on biodiversity in South Africa


It is no exaggeration to say that science has saved humanity on multiple occasions. The most recent has been through the development of vaccines for the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Not all scientists work directly in applied research, such as vaccine development. But successful scientists produce the fundamental data, information, and knowledge that contribute to an upward chain of information. This improves our ability to understand and solve the problems of humanity.

Given the indisputable value of science, it would seem foolish to obstruct its advancement. However, impediments to progress in some fields, such as biodiversity research, have accumulated for several years.

This is true in South Africa, where the burden of bureaucracy it has increased over the past decade, obstructing even some of the most basic forms of data collection. In a recent comment, written by more than 30 of South Africa’s biodiversity and field researchers, we set the scale of the problem.

The problem is not unique to South Africa. A wave of scientists see this state of affairs as a crisis. Scientists have been drawing attention to the problem in Brazil like India, among other countries.

As field researchers, we recognize the need for regulations related to the use of South Africa’s natural resources for research and other purposes. Legislation is necessary for a number of legitimate reasons. These include preventing unethical practices, ensuring animal welfare, stopping unsustainable harvesting of natural resources, controlling the spread of reportable diseases, and curbing illicit wildlife trade.

But implementing the legislation in terms of legitimate research has become problematic because it is applied with a broad brushstroke approach. In essence, hunters, wildlife poachers, and genuine researchers are viewed through the same legislative lens. This inclusive approach supposedly reduces risks to natural resources. But it is also stopping or holding back genuine research aimed at benefiting conservation.

In our paper We call for measures to reduce the burden of bureaucracy and to promote and facilitate biodiversity research in South Africa.

The tangle of bureaucracy

For biological research, the red tape comes primarily in the form of drastically increased requirements for permits and authorizations, making biodiversity research heavily regulated. The result is that the critical need to collect data that relates to future environmental sustainability and effective conservation of our environment is now overshadowed by a minefield of regulations.

South Africa has a number of complementary laws and regulations that directly affect field biological research projects. For example, investigators must obtain permits before beginning their work. But these can take months or even years to issue.

Also, there are numerous overlaps and duplications. Take the example of permissions. Research programs may require permits from national and provincial authorities. Since a research program may require permits for various activities, the application process can lead to long delays in project start-up.

Furthermore, large-scale projects carried out in more than one province require permits from each of the relevant provinces, each with its own permit system and its own set of rules.

Therefore it is not uncommon Some field research projects require more than 20 different permits, authorizations, and approvals to be issued before work can begin.

In addition, we point out interpretations and implementation of older laws that we do not believe reflect the spirit in which the laws were originally designed. In particular, we identify elements of the Animal disease law and Veterinary and para-veterinary professions law.

In the case of the Animal Diseases Act, long-standing legislation has recently been reinterpreted to now apply to all forms of field research on animals, even if the research work has no potential to spread disease. And the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act now regulates who can perform “procedures” on animals. This means that investigators must go through additional administrative hoops annually to conduct their investigation.

The consequences for biological research are proving dire.

What to do

If current levels of bureaucracy persist, we believe the impact on biodiversity research in South Africa will be debilitating.

We highlight several relatively straightforward solutions. These include:

  • Legislation must be evaluated by a panel of independent experts with input from researchers and legislators.
  • Provincial and national permitting bodies must provide general research permits to accredited research institutions. Then, permission for individual research projects must be delegated to the ethics committee of each institution.
  • When permits are required for individual research projects, they must be issued for the expected duration of the project, not annually as is the current standard.
  • Multiple separate permits must be replaced by a single, integrated permit that includes all relevant research aspects in a research proposal.
  • Permitting procedures need to be simplified. Response times are much longer than promised and appear to be due to unwieldy systems and procedures.
  • Authorization from an accredited ethics committee must be valid at the national level.
  • Universities and national research institutes should support researchers more directly, for example by providing compliance officers familiar with the relevant legislation to help with compliance issues.

It is necessary to facilitate the progress of science, not hinder it. The government must adopt a more reasonable and just interpretation of existing legislation so that the scientific endeavor is facilitated and promoted, rather than hindered and blocked.The conversation

Graham alexander, Professor of Herpetology, Physiology and Environmental Physiology, Ecology and Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand; Bryan maritz, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, University of the Western Cape, and Krystal tolley, Principal Scientist, National Biodiversity Institute of South Africa

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the Original article.


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