Science academies’ role in development: presidents reveal it all

Educating children and women is essential to mainstreaming science Copyright: Flickr/groundreporter

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Science academies across South Asia and Africa are advocating for better science education and gender equity, reports T. V. Padma.

[NEW DELHI] Science academies in South Asia have varied histories, methods of funding and degrees of autonomy and influence, and their countries have different development priorities.

But when SciDev.Net talked to the heads of many of these organisations recently, on the sidelines of the first summit of South Asian science academies — from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — which was organised by the Indian National Science Academy in New Delhi, in September,  it was clear they shared a common concern: science education and development.

"If I have to identify a couple of [science] issues which are directly related to development, they are education for all, and science education for a large number of people, both men and women," says Shamsher Ali, former president of the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences.

For Ali, the key is women’s education: an educated woman tends to safeguard and nurture her own children’s education, and is also better informed about the need for family planning, comparatively empowered, and better able to take decisions, he says.

Scientist in Bangladesh

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Ali also advocates harnessing the media for raising awareness of development issues such as climate change, rather than it merely functioning as a channel for entertainment.

"I think all governments should spend more on education, science education and women, and they [should] use the media to create awareness of the right to empowerment," he says.

Need for science education

Locana Gunaratna, president of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka, also stresses the importance of science education. "Sri Lanka has a high rate of literacy, but it is not scientifically literate," he says.

His counterpart in the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Atta-ur-Rahman, a former science minister, agrees.

"There is no realisation that the real wealth of our country lies in our children," he says, and unleashing this potential through high quality education holds the key to the region’s development.

"If countries of the region want to march forward, they have to invest at least 7–8 per cent of their gross domestic product [GDP] on a long-term, continuous basis for primary, secondary and tertiary [education], and in the fields of science and technology," he concludes.

Hassan Zohoor, secretary of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, who attended the academies meeting as an observer, along with representatives of the pan-African Academy of Sciences, sums it up neatly: "Development has a very near correlation with education."

The Iranian academy has focused mainly on teaching engineering but is now broadening into science education.

It’s no surprise that after decades of conflict and mass movements of people, Afghanistan is in urgent need of support for science and education.

"We have 250 scholars in science, of whom 225 are graduates, 5–10 are postgraduates and ten are PhD students," says Ghulam Najamuddin Tarin, president of the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences.

Tarin has appealed to the international scientific community to help the country revive its science. One of the recommendations emerging from September’s academies meeting was to foster regional support for science in Afghanistan.

Education — and not just science education — is possibly of even greater concern to academies in Africa.

Ahmadou Lamine Ndiaye, president of the Nairobi-based African Academy of Sciences, tells SciDev.Net: "In most of our [African] countries we have a lot of young people who want to be educated and we can’t afford it, because we don’t have enough teachers. Even if we can build classrooms, who is going to teach in these classrooms? From the elementary schools to tertiary level, we need human resources, and that’s why the main issue of development is strengthening human resources in Africa."

Different countries, different needs

But the academies are also confronted by different national issues.

For the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the chief concerns are climate change and energy. 

The organisation’s president, Surendra Kafle, says the academy, which follows the example of the Chinese Academy of Sciences by engaging in both research and policy, is trying to help the government address climate change, including expanding the energy options to incorporate renewable like solar and micro-hydropower; agriculture; and river resources.

Floods in Kashmir

Harnessing science to respond to climate change is essential

Flickr/CAPRA Intiative

Similarly, Mauritius, like many other small island states, faces the threat of rising sea levels and changes in rainfall patterns as a result of global warming, and is trying to solve its energy problem.

Mauritius and Nepal are not alone; almost all developing countries are grappling with problems of climate change, energy, food, and water resources. But often they do not seem to be clear in which direction to head.

Atta-ur-Rahman adds: "Most [South Asian] countries really do not have a clear road map. They have not done a [technology] foresight exercise to determine in a very scientific manner what their priority areas should be, with the result that with limited funds they are trying to do a little bit of everything. In other words, they are spreading [themselves] too thin."

Rahman suggests undertaking regular foresight exercises through extensive consultation with experts in different scientific disciplines, the private sector and the diaspora. Countries should also factor in natural resources that could help them carve out a niche and leverage international advantage technologically and commercially.

The lack of technology foresight exercises, he says, means that "there is no clear path for development. And each government that comes in has its own strategy and approach, with the result that often things go round in circles rather than in a specific direction."

New roles for old academies

This is where science academies can be useful, functioning as think-tanks and policy advisors guiding countries towards development.

Their greatest advantage, says Shamsher Ali, is their multi-disciplinary expertise and their ability to serve as a ‘depository of knowledge’ in every discipline.

"If we facilitate bringing these multi-disciplinary experts together, and they, in turn, interact with [national] educational institutions [and] reach out to a large number of people, [effectively] acting as a think tank, I think development processes will be much easier," Ali says.

Rahman agrees that "academies can, and should, serve as intellectual think-tanks, looking at not only the present problems, but also at the horizon and the future, and advising the government on short-, medium- and long-term strategies for socio-economic development".

"What we are talking about now is evidence-based science dialogue with government," says Yousuf Maudarbocus, chairman of the Mauritius Academy of Science and Technology. He gives the example of academies advising governments on renewable energy options and on curbing and responding to climate change — including making changes to lifestyles.

Zohoor says Iran’s science academy is already moving in that advisory direction, with findings from its working groups on agriculture, engineering, veterinary and human medicine, and Islamic and social sciences feeding into legislative and executive bodies.

It has a council of science and technology foresight, a centre for science and technology studies, and a countrywide study underway on the ‘status of science in Iran for future orientation’.

India’s science minister Vayalar Ravi too reminded the meeting: "Public understanding of science is increasing in this region and people expect solutions from science." With their niche status, science academies "bear a social responsibility to connect science with the public".

Drawing lessons for Africa from South Asian experience

In Africa, says Ndiaye, there’s a particularly important role for the academies. In the 1960s, the GDPs of South Korea and Singapore were similar to those of many African countries, but now, thanks to investment in science and technology, both are classed as ‘Asian Tigers’ (highly developed economies in Asia).

On the other side of the coin, Senegal has more natural resources than South Korea or Singapore, yet its economy is declining.

"We have to convince our government of the role and importance of science and technology in development," says Ndiaye.

And he points out that it’s a two-way process: the science academies in India and Pakistan are doing well because their countries invested in science: "We can take them as examples," Ndiaye concludes.