Disrupting the status quo: Science edition

By Nonkululeko Radebe

To whom does science belong?


It has proven to be quite a challenge to write a comprehensive essay about dismantling or disrupting the status quo in science. I suppose to tackle the issue one has to possess some knowledge about the existing state of affairs in science. Firstly, what does a scientist look like? What is the most represented version of a scientist? Why does this matter? Once we have answered these questions then perhaps, we can explore how and why different people with diverse backgrounds relate differently to science. One of the ways in which we can do so is look at the education systems and curricula in different communities and investigate whether or not they allow science to be accessible to all and contextualized. We need to get rid of the eurocentric dominance and eurocentric hegemony of
science.

It is no secret that African values, perspectives, contributions and experiences are not prioritized in science. Indigenous African science, although not mainstream, is still science. Veteran science journalists Sarah Wild and Linda Nordling share that “there is a wealth of traditional knowledge systems in Africa, but the current global science system came to Africa in the hands of the colonialists. Modern research centres in Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe have their roots in medical or agricultural science outposts funded and manned from their colonial masters” (1). This introduces the issue of research funding. Much of the funding for masters and Ph.D. studies comes from external donors whose real interest do not align with those of the people on the local people. Some of the top ranked universities in Africa have research groups researching telescopes, robots, and accelerated mass spectrometers etc. and have no immediate relevance to African people. In South Africa, we have the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office within the Department of Science and Technology, the main driver of science within government. One of the objectives if the Indigenous Knowledge Bill is to “develop and enhance the potential of indigenous communities to protect their indigenous knowledge” (2). Billions of rands have been spent on researching indigenous knowledge, such as medicinal plants but the National Research Foundation (NRF) can certainly do more to ensure that funding is provided to projects that have lasting impact on the lives of people in the country. Having said
that, we also need to recognize that science has been developed by knowledge from all around the world. Science does not have a so called “origin”. We are collective agents of the history and the future of science.

Hindsight

Furthermore, we need to address the issue of physical representation in science and research. Math and science have always been, and is still, considered “masculine subjects” because they involve logic and numbers, which apparently “emotional females” cannot handle. Of cause, we cannot solely blame this stereotype on the education system but on society as a whole. How can we expect young girls to aspire to be game changers, engineers, scientists to be innovators when they are brought up playing with gender-based toys? Young boys are stimulated with train sets and Lego to build with as well as chemistry sets to discover with whist young girls are given make-up sets and dolls. We need to encourage and inspire young girls and what better way than sharing with them scientific breakthroughs and achievements by women. Achievements by of women in science both in the history book and in the present day have been overlooked and representation of women is disproportional to say the least. Although someone like Marie-Curie (Nobel laureate for discovering the radioactive elements polonium and radium) (3) often dominates the conversation when it comes to brilliant female scientists but it is important to point out that there were exceptional women contributors to science before and after her, yet most of them were snubbed due to sexism. One of these women was Rosalind Franklind, who was a biophysicist that studies DNA and contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA (4). For this research, two of her male colleagues went on to win the Nobel Prize. In addition, in a recent screenplay called “Hidden Figures” we learn that African-American female mathematicians, during the height of segregation and oppression, beat the odds and formed part of the team that calculated the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return (5). This is important for young girls, young girls from all ethnicities to see and hear. It is most especially necessary to begin and decenter white, heterosexual, and middle or upper class men from being the face of science. The system will not reform itself only through historiography. If we really want pragmatic change, we need to have serious conversations with those in institutional governance, those who make and implement policies. What would make this deal even sweeter would be if the boardrooms in which these decisions are made actually had women in them because “you can’t make decisions, if you are not in the room where the decisions are being made”-Unknown. The smartest move is to invest in women and continue to make deliberate and systematic changes to boost the number of females in lower and higher education through scholarships, science expos in rural areas that may not have access and increasing scientific resources that will improve the quality of education.

How to “science” 101

Whilst we invest in young girls and women, we should also consider ways in which we give tangible meaning to science. A great start would be to demystify science by allowing children in at primary school level to solve real problems with solutions they think of together. This same idea was beautifully illustrated in a TED talk titled “How to teach kids to love science”. In this TED talk the speaker, Cesar Harada, explains how he teaches invention and citizen science at the Hong Kong Harbour School. He moved his classroom into an industrial mega-space where imaginative kids work with wood, metal, chemistry, biology, optics and, occasionally, power tools to create solutions to the threats facing the world’s oceans. The classroom has been transformed into a workshop where the kids, which range in age from 6-15, do rapid prototyping. One of the projects they did was to build a sensor that would estimate the about of plastic found in the ocean. The kids then found a community with other kids that needed this technology to identify the amount of oil in their water (from an oil spill). They shipped they robot sensor, in this small but significant way showed empathy, and were able to help another community (6). Furthermore, by doing this, he and the students has destroyed the notion that science is practiced only in a laboratory. Science is being “done” every day and everywhere. The irony is that science is seen as somewhat as a conservative sphere all though science bring different disciplines together.

Embracing interdisciplinary learning

I often come across stories about young men and women, in rural areas, who are purifying water through traditional and household purification methods and generate electricity for their families using solar energy. That is innovation and that is science. Fact is, necessity has always been the driving force behind innovation and homemade purification system and electricity generators are testimony to that. This also reiterates that scientific change should be recognized only at a contextualized level of description of the practices of scientists at rather specific times and places. Currently, there is not enough energy being extracted from known sources of fossil fuels to sustain an estimated 7.5 billion people (7). This means that humans will be forced to turn to a new energy sources before the end of the century. However, necessity has proven to be the catalyst needed for innovation and currently we are in need of clean drinking water, housing and sustainable farming for food. We need plans for sustainable farming, and cheaper ways to turn seawater into drinking water. Contrary to popular belief, I think that migrating towards clean energy should not take us decades. Clean energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal kinetic power already exist and that application of these methods should be expanded and implanted worldwide. Already in some countries, the move away from cars that run on gas towards electrical cars has been made. The next step would be to a smart electrical grid, and invest in carbon-capture. This highlights how science can be used and in fact has been used as pivotal part in building the economy, technological advances and societal progress. Furthermore, it will prove to be more effective if more interdisciplinary relationships are built between science, engineering, commerce and social science. As much as new technology is necessary, large-scale changes can be made through policy changes more than gadgets and more often than not, people who are in commerce and social science are the policy makers and allocate government funding.

In Conclusion

It is obvious that factors of community, society, gender and technology play a key role in facilitating or mitigating scientific change. We have to explore the challenges that we are faced in our respective communities whether that be our immediate, remote or global communities. Thereafter we need to place more effort into investing in women to study science through deliberate systematic changes. Further, we have to apply local solutions for local problems with the influence of indigenous knowledge and an interdisciplinary approach. The changing global environment is not only a natural sciences issue but very much a social sciences issue too. This means solutions that combine socio-political, cultural and economic (8) are needed. The most effective relationships in these fields can be fostered through sharpening the efforts to improve access and quality of education. Science, in my humble opinion, is most effect when we pull away from intellectualizing it but instead applying it to improve the lives of earth’s inhabitants.

References

  1. Sarah Wild, Linda Nordling. Daily Mavrick. Op-Ed: Science is not unAfrican – but there is a prejudice towards African science. [Online] October 21, 2016. [Cited: January 27, 2017.] https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-10-21-op-ed science-is-not-unafrican-but-there-is-a-prejudice-towards-african-science/#.
  2. Science and Technology, Minister. Protection, promotion, development and management of indigenous knowledge systems bill. Cape town : Creda Communications, 2016.
  3. Nobelprize.org. Marie-Curie: Facts. [Online] Nobel Media AB 2014. [Cited:
    January 15, 2017.] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1903/mariecurie-facts.html.
  4. Bagley, Mary . Rosalind Franklin: Biography & Discovery of DNA Structure. [Online] 2013. [Cited: January 21, 2016.]http://www.livescience.com/39804-rosalind-franklin.html.
  5. Melfi, Theodore. Hidden Figures. Levantine Films, 2015.
  6. Harada, Cesar, [comps.]. How to Teach kids to love science. s.l. : TED talks, 2015.
  7. Worldometers. Current World Population. [Online] [Cited: January 15, 2017.] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.
  8. Vogel, Coleen. World Social Science Report: Changing Global environments. Paris :United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2013.

2 thoughts on “Disrupting the status quo: Science edition

  • June 23, 2021 at 9:24 pm
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    I really like the last statement. It begs the question, how many PhDs findings are eventually implemented? There seems to be a lot of research and not much implementation. And if there is any implementation, it seems to usually be a small scale operations.
    But alas there is hope. Perhaps even as some people continue to research new ideas, others should also he hailed for bringing the practical ones to fruition so that they can actually help people.
    Great piece Ms. Radebe

    Reply
  • September 15, 2021 at 6:11 pm
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    Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve been to your blog before but after browsing through many of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely delighted I stumbled upon it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back often!

    Reply

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