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‘Tech obsession’ neglects social science role

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Jon Spaull
in Cambridge, UK

There is an “obsession with technology” and a “denigration” of critical thinking, ideas and debate in some countries in Africa and the developing world. This was the view expressed by Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom at the Cambridge-Africa day last week (23 October), an event that showcased examples of partnerships between researchers at the university and in Africa. 

His message to the Cambridge-Africa partnership was to “please grow arts and humanities”: Borysiewicz urged universities to offer a range of subjects and not to forget the “brilliant” cultural contributions of subjects outside of the natural sciences, technology, engineering and maths.

He went on to say that universities such as Cambridge must support academics in the developing world who want to debate issues not palatable with those in power. It occurred to me that one of the leaders he had in mind was President Museveni of Uganda, who famously claimed that many arts students “only think” and “have nothing to help us because they are offered useless courses”.

The importance of social sciences in multidisciplinary research came up a number of times throughout the day. For example, in his talk on the transmission of zoonotic viruses in and from bats in Ghana, Cambridge scientist James Wood highlighted the need for more research into the links between poverty and the human consumption of bats to complement his work on veterinary epidemiology. 

Universities such as Cambridge must support academics in the developing world who want to debate issues not palatable with those in power. 

Leszek Borysiewicz, University of Cambridge

Another example is the study of a new urban language used by young people in Uganda. Saudah Nayalo from Makerere University explained how the new language evolved on the streets of Kampala from a mixture of African languages, English and even Jamaican patois. She found that youth HIV prevention campaigns failed to reach their target audience because they did not know this new language and did not address young people in the language they could relate to.

These were compelling illustrations of Borysiewicz’s point: at first sight, a lot of research in the arts, humanities and social sciences may not seem to have any relevance to the country’s public health or development — but these examples prove that the likes of President Museveni are wrong to conclude that these subjects have no role to play in building the continent’s future. 

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