Africa needs a culture of science

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The first step towards an African culture of science is to make science relevant to local people, says development expert Oyeniyi Akande.

For science and technology to contribute to development goals, countries must embrace a ‘science culture’ — a scientifically enlightened society where research findings can be better and more efficiently used to produce goods and services.

A science culture reflects the practice of applying science to daily life and developing a strong commitment among the public to engage with science. It is achieved, for example, when people adopt better hygiene and sanitation to improve their health, go to hospitals for treatment when they are sick, and grow improved crop species to increase food security in their community.

There is little doubt that a science culture is largely absent in Africa. For example, we often hear reports of ritual albino killings in East Africa, especially in Tanzania, in the belief that such actions bring riches, or of the belief that sex with underage children can cure HIV/AIDS.

A science culture in Africa would improve the environment and increase the opportunities for investment and activities (both foreign and indigenous) to harness science and technology for development.

But how to achieve it?

Raising awareness

Creating a science culture depends in part on improving education and raising awareness and understanding of modern science.

Parents in some parts of northern Nigeria recently resisted vaccinating their children against wild polio, partly because of the reported deaths of children previously inoculated with a new drug. Better awareness, understanding and education of the science behind the drugs and the reported deaths might have resulted in a more positive outcome.

The absence of a science culture can also result from financial constraints. For example, many Africans go to churches for ‘divine healing’ because they cannot afford hospital bills, or because churches are closer and more accessible to remote communities.

Similarly, housewives may cook with wood or charcoal because healthier and environmentally sustainable alternatives, such as cooking gas, are too expensive.

Understanding local needs

The biggest challenge to creating a science culture in Africa is the widespread public perception that science is foreign-led and irrelevant to people’s daily needs.Making science-based strategies recognise and address the real needs and economic situations of local people is central to persuading them to engage more with science.

Unfortunately, a history of ill-designed research and development projects, shaped by international demands, has fuelled mistrust and scepticism of science on the continent.

For example, in the mid-1980s some donor agencies distributed storage drums to local farmers in the Sahel belt of West Africa to help them preserve their grain harvests. But instead, the farmers used the drums to collect and store rainwater, because their need for water was more pressing.

This poor understanding of local people’s needs is widespread. In 1986–90 a technical assistance project at the African Regional Centre for Technology in Dakar, Senegal, tried to promote the use of biogas, generated from cow dung or human faeces, as a household energy supply in the Sahel.

But livestock in the region do not live in enclosures, and collecting dung as they moved from place to place proved too daunting a task. In addition, eating food cooked with heat generated from human faeces was unacceptable to the largely Muslim population.

Across the continent, donor agencies donate computers and other teaching aids to schools in regions where they cannot be used because the pupils do not even have classrooms to sit in.

Science for development requires an interdisciplinary approach, and many of the failures mentioned might have been avoided if the projects had addressed the social and economic dimensions that influence human behaviour.

Instead, people are left comparing ‘science’ that they can neither understand nor use, with tried-and-tested local experience. It is perhaps not surprising that they choose to trust the wisdom of their forefathers over foreign science.

Making science relevant

Donors and researchers must stop letting irrelevant results lead to inappropriate recommendations by ensuring that their activities address the real and pressing needs of their intended beneficiaries.

African policymakers must reinvest in science and technology activities to establish greater trust in science. Sustained campaigns to popularise science will deliver greater understanding of the benefits that scientific advances and technologies can bring. And targeting national research efforts to address local problems will help ensure that science remains relevant to real needs.

Building the capacity to undertake such research will be equally important. As the 2005 UNESCO science report states: "if Africa expects to use science and technology to tackle its most pressing problems, it must develop its own scientific and technical capacities. Otherwise, it will be forever beholden to second-hand science that will never quite fit the continent’s circumstances."

Science and technology alone cannot develop Africa — but without science and technology, Africa cannot be developed.

Oyeniyi Akande worked for about 40 years in the public service of Nigeria — as a teacher, agricultural extension specialist, science administrator and development planner. He retired in 2005 as Director of Infrastructure and Public Utilities at the National Planning Commission.