Public 'must know about science to support it'
Explaining to voters the contribution that science and technology make to their daily lives can play an important role in persuading politicians to support both activities, according to Swaziland's education minister.
Constance Simelane told a meeting on capacity building in Africa yesterday (1 February) that although Swaziland was one of Africa's smallest countries, it still needed to ensure that it could share in developments in science and technology.
At present, however, apart from initiatives in the private sector — and the activities of a few internationally known scientists — little was being done to support science in her country, which lacked either a science minister or a department of science and technology.
"We are not looking at science and technology with the importance that they deserve," said Simelane, who is a schoolteacher by profession. "We have a low budget allocation for science and technology, leaving universities, for example, to work with what they can scrounge, and what they can raise from external sources."
One of Swaziland's problems is the lack of a proper policy framework for science and technology; the country's economic strategy, for example, only contained one paragraph on such topics. "But without a policy on science and technology, how is Swaziland going to tackle the many challenges it faces?" asked Simelane.
In order to remedy the situation, she said, "we need to look at how we can bring everyone — legislators, the executive and the people — on board, and help them to understand the importance of science to meeting the country's social needs."
Although Swaziland had a budgetary plan, it had to win popular approval. "You can imagine the feedback that politicians are going to receive if people do not understand the issues; they are going to say: 'why are you going to spend money on science and technology when we face so many urgent needs?'"
Simelane said it was therefore important, if any progress was to be made on this issue, to explain to both policymakers and the public how science and technology can be effective in reducing poverty. "We must bring the debate to a level that people can understand, and in order to do that, we must use examples that people are familiar with," she said.
"When you ask someone in Swaziland 'where do condoms come from?', for example, science and technology do not come into it all; the answer is that you get them at the clinic," she said. Similarly in discussing sanitation issues, people did not know what had to be done to treat water to ensure that it was clean and healthy.
When discussing such issues, said Simelane, it was important to explain to people the role of the underlying science and technology. "If we do that, people will see that these are not just activities that belong to the hallowed towers of academia. But to do this successfully, the argument must be brought down to a level that people can understand."
Click here for SciDev.Net's coverage of the 31 January - 2 February meeting 'Building Science & Technology Capacity with African partners'