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Articulating the power of science

2 June 2018 at 21:40 | 1990 views

Commentary

Articulating the power of science

By Thomas B. R. Yormah, Freetown, Sierra Leone*

Tel.: +232 76626488/ 30 230500

Preamble

This piece is a moderately modified version of an inspirational talk I gave at a Science Popularisation workshop organised by the then Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) in Freetown on 22 May 2013. This publication is occasioned by the surge of interest the present government has put into technical education and Innovation. For some of us the conversation around STI (Science Technology and Innovation) has been on the table for quite a while now. In addition to this workshop paper, several other very crucial science-related development documents emanating from the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD) had long been submitted to MEST but sadly no attention was paid to the issues raised in those documents. And this is the huge challenge facing development in Africa and much of the poor world - that our leaders only pay lip service to the urgent need to leverage STI to leep-frog our development. The reason, perhaps. is that investments in science and technology for development - in Human Resource management generally - do not yield dramatic overnight dividends, and understandably to the chagrin of most politicians. However, when such dividends yield, they are spectacular and lasting. Read on.

Introduction

It is now a generally known fact that the global development agenda has taken a paradigm shift from an assets-based development to a knowledge-driven development. Gone are the days when a nation was considered wealthy and her development sure to be propelled by the quantum of non-human natural resources (such as crude oil, natural gas, coal, precious minerals, mineral ores, fish and other marine resources, fertile agricultural lands, etc.) owned and now are the days where the human resource of a nation, especially the brain power, is the overwhelming guarantee for the development of a nation. Knowledge that is strategically harnessed and packaged can generate enormous wealth for a nation - as exemplified by such industrialised countries as Singapore, Korea, Belgium, Holland, etc. that lack non-human natural resource.

Of all the various forms of knowledge, scientific knowledge is the most fundamentally critical to development. In fact it is the considered view of most development scientists (the late Nobel Laureate, Professor of Particle Physics, Abdus Salam, being among the first proponents of this view) that the division of the globe into two camps - a wealthy, industrialised and developed Northern hemisphere inhabited by the powerful and mighty, on the one hand, and a poor, non-industrialised and yet-to-develop South, inherited and inhabited by the weak and miserable, on the other hand, is essentially an Science Technology & Innovation (STI) divide, wherein the countries of the wealthy North have effectively leveraged STI to create wealth and bring economic and social solace/succour to their populations while the countries of the South are yet to wake up to the realization of how critical science, technology and innovation are to the development of any nation. In a nut-shell, what the foregoing is saying is that the wealthy, powerful and influential folks of this globe are the ones that have put a high premium on science, technology and innovation, while those of us who are still paying mere lip-service to these critical vehicles of development shall remain poor, weak and without influence and shall continue to carry the begging bowl. This is a mantra I have dedicated myself to singing whenever I am given the opportunity until my voice is heard and taken note of in the right quarters.

It is also now clear that the most effective way to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty (Goal 1 of the MDGs - Millennium Development Goals) is by creating wealth and subsequently fairly and prudently distributing that wealth. Wealth creation and its proper management can also ultimately guarantee the achievement of most of the other MDGs. It is to be noted that this piece was written while the MDG prescription for global development was still in force, however, the forgoing argument also applies to the SDGs - Sustainable Development Goals. Thus industrialisation leading to increased employment and diversification of production and marketing of goods consumed locally but also sought after by other nations must be the way forward. One of the key catalysts of industrialisation is capacity building through the acquisition of skills in science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, marketing, and related vocations. This is a service the universities and other tertiary institutions are critically placed to provide and must be fully supported to achieve this goal.

It therefore makes sense in this knowledge-driven global economy that greater emphasis is placed on strategic human resource development that will position a nation to acquire competitive advantage in her developmental strides with the ultimate goal of better catering for the needs of her citizens. The knowledge that must go into adding value to our natural resources and into optimising our services, as well as the knowledge that must go into innovating in search of new products and services is scientific knowledge and must be consciously and strategically harnessed/managed by producing the right types and the right quantities of brainpower (vis--vis brawn-power). This will naturally require greater investments in the generation, dissemination and utilisation of knowledge (research) - especially scientific knowledge. Key intellectual property (IP) issues must be part of this agenda in order to achieve a wholesome knowledge management platform that will inspire and reward successful players in the knowledge generation process.

Articulating the Power and Relevance of Science

What I have tried to do in the foregoing is to profile the power and potential power of science as it relates to the development aspirations of all nations. Naturally one would want to ask as to why in spite of the very clear potential for science to deliver our development aspirations and in spite of the ever-present and pervasive nature of science and its product – technology – in our societies the profile of science in Sierra Leone is so low. We encounter science in so many ways and on a daily basis – from the mobile phones and/or radios that alarm to wake us up in the mornings, the light bulbs we switch on to aid visibility, the toothpaste, bath soaps, shower gels and other detergents we use in the bathrooms, to the body creams and perfumes we wear, to the microwave, gas and other cookers that make quick breakfasts possible, the beverages and even the daily food supplements we take at breakfast, the vehicles that move us to work/school/market, etc. to the medicines we take to address health issues, etc. etc. - but yet we do not seem to value science or at best we take it for granted! Our policy-makers (politicians, civil servants, parliamentarians, etc.) who are daily immersed in science yet consciously or unconsciously budget pittance in terms of resources for the management of science, technology and innovation! So what can scientists do to address this serious challenge? The following are some of my humble suggestions:

Enhancing the Public Profile of Scientists and therefore of Science

If indeed science has the unrivalled potential to generate wealth and bring about prosperity, as we constantly proclaim, then scientists themselves must be seen to be prosperous. We must endeavour to use the positive attributes of science to create wealth and economic succour to first and foremost materially liberate ourselves and families from the scourge of poverty. Scientists must be imaginative enough to devise ways of income generation outside their monthly salaries. Imagine, almost all the cottage industries in this country are owned by Indians, Lebanese, Chinese, Nigerians and other foreigners. Why can’t a group of science teachers, lecturers, engineers and other professionals come together to start successful enterprises with capital and advice from investment institutions or from taking part in Business Bomba competitions - and embark on mentoring crops of younger scientists? This is how Sierra Leone will build a critical mass of successful and wealthy science professionals that the young folks will look forward to emulate. This will make it a lot easier to sell science as a profitable vocation and will help to popularise science. If we continue to fail to carve out a positive and enviable societal profile – like the healer who fails to cure him/herself – very few people will take us seriously when we proclaim science as the most empowering vocation.

A robust - strong and enduring - scientific profile of any nation must have its foundation in the school system. Good scientists must be caught while very young! This then points the light on the teaching and management of science in schools. Thus successful scientists must be able to consciously as well as unconsciously mentor young and budding scientists.

Scientists must also endeavour to position themselves in strategic positions in the governing machinery of the country from where they defend and promote science. In this regard they become good ambassadors of science.

In order to achieve the foregoing, scientists must avoid being too strictly compartmentalised in terms of discipline but should rather endeavour to cut across and foray into especially the social disciplines so that they become better able to conceptualise and articulate the relevance of science to humanity generally. I recall that on a number of occasions genuine attempts have been made to compliment me for style of writings with words like "you don’t write like a scientist - more like one from the humanities". I guess the popular perception that scientists are too insular and perhaps narrow-minded is what informs these sincere sentiments. Perhaps we have not celebrated such literary scientists like Albert Einstein, ...and even our very own Professor Kosonikeh Kosso-Thomas - the Engineer Poet - enough.

Making Science less Cumbersome and more Palatable to Engage

Scientists must endeavour to craft more interesting and engaging ways of communicating science to especially non-scientists and potential scientists targeted for harvesting. The National Science & Technology Council, The Sierra Leone Science Association, The Sierra Leone Association of Mathematics and Science Teachers, The Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers, The Sierra Leone Geological Society, the soon to be launched Sierra Leone Chemical Society, etc. must be in the vanguard of efforts to devise strategies that make science more user-friendly. Granted that as part of the process of mainstreaming science in our societies government policy requires that all school pupils must be required to study some aspect of science up to the end of their Senior Secondary School programme. However, does it make sense to require pupils in the Arts and Commercial streams to happily engage and master the entire WASSCE syllabus for Biology (the most popular science subject that non-science pupils offer in the WASCCE programme)? Would it not make better science to craft a more interesting programme called “Science-for-non-scientists” or “Everyday Science”? This might entail revising/reorganising/revamping/reengineering the present Science Core syllabus with the view to making it more user-friendly.

Use of the Media to Demystify Science

Mounting regular radio and television Programmes and publishing incisive articles on topical issues with the aim of explaining and clarifying normally mystical science phenomena to lay people will help to give science a more friendly profile and will in turn help to popularise science. The national science associations under the leadership of the Science & Technology Council (which sadly is almost moribund at the moment) must be in the vanguard of this process and government must give the necessary support by building capacity and motivating professionals that participate in these programmes.

The Integration of Science and Business Through Entrepreneurship Skills Development to Deliver Wealth Creation

It is now very clear that the potential for science to create wealth and to therefore serve as the engine for development cannot be realised if science remains insular. The fact is, science is very flexible and can easily fuse with business using the right entrepreneurship skills and this is the most potent route via which it can deliver wealth creation for economic and social development. It has now been proven beyond doubt that innovation and entrepreneurship are key to converting knowledge into wealth. One of the key instruments via which this goal can be achieved is the introduction of compulsory entrepreneurship modules in the science curricula of tertiary institutions. Other institutions that can serve as crucial stepping stones in the achievement of this goal include Business Incubators and Science & Technology Parks. This is another way of improving the appeal and positive profile of science.

Award of National Science Prizes to Reward Innovation and Creativity as a Way of Showcasing the Power of Science

The present knowledge-driven global economy places increased premium on the value of knowledge. Thus strategies that promote the generation and marketing of new scientific knowledge have the greatest potential to create wealth and thereby enhance the probability of achieving the Millennium Development Goal 1 of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger - as well as most SDGs. Awards that give national recognition and meaningful material reward to deserving thinkers and innovators is the right way forward in positively profiling science and scientists. It is important to ensure that effective business and entrepreneurship skills are used to make sure that the generated new knowledge (in terms of new goods and services) create gainful employment and a socio-political environment that enables the trickling down of the created wealth to as many deserving members of the nation as possible. I hope and pray that our friends in the All Works of Life (AWOL) national Awards platform will get this message.

Current Challenges Facing Science

The following challenges tend to make science unpopular:

Employment challenges – the perception that the only gainful employment available to science graduates is the relatively poorly paid teaching job. Government must do everything to ensure that this becomes a myth - by paying science teachers attractive salaries and by diversifying the economy so that scientists can find employment in the industrial, service, and other sectors.

The migration of potential pure & applied science undergraduate students to the engineering, medicine, and now mining disciplines – thereby undermining science teaching and therefore the foundation of science and all science-related disciplines. This phenomenon has its foundation in the presently skewed reward system in our nation coupled with a lack of professional counseling of undergraduate students.

Some Suggested Solutions to Address Current Challenges

The following suggestions are not exhaustive:

Government must be encouraged to fast-track the full establishment of the Teaching Service Commission with a view to massively overhaul the working conditions of teachers (including review of the special incentives for science teachers) and to set standards for the effective professional work and comportment of teachers. This all important commission must be seen to be robust and independent of government in its operations. The present huge paucity of good - effective - science teachers in schools is a cause for serious concern. This calls for a far-reaching overhaul of the regime of training teachers in our tertiary institutions.

Blending entrepreneurship skills with science training can serve as impetus for moulding scientists as employers rather than just employees.

Government must empower and work closely with the private sector to fast-track the industrialization of the country; this will act as a pull factor in the cultivation & training of young scientists and will also address the nagging youth unemployment challenge. All key industries must be mandated to have R&D (Research and Development) Units that will foster University-Industry linkages and the cultivation of young scientists.

The mounting of annual job fairs that bring together employers and job seekers with the aim of counseling and exposing job seekers to the range of employment possibilities in the job market will help inform and motivate young scientists in their pursuit of science careers.

Industrial attachments and internship programmes in tertiary institutions must be invigorated by closely involving the participation of science students associations and government STI institutions.

*Dr. Thomas B. R. Yormah is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone; between 2003 and 2007 he was Sierra Leone’s representative on the United Nations Commission for Science & Technology for Development (UNCSTD) – a UN ECOSOC commission with Secretariat hosted by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade & Development) in Geneva, Switzerland; between September 2009 and December 2011 he was Deputy Vice Chancellor for Fourah Bay College and Pro Vice Chancellor for University of Sierra Leone.

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