I rarely think or talk about science outside of the social sciences. As a pupil and student I never had a head for such things as mathematics.
My ambivalence toward them often extended to teachers who tried to get me to like them. Putting ideas together in words, not calculations, was my thing. So I naturally gravitated towards “soft” (yeah, right) subjects.
This last week, though, I spent much time discussing or listening to people talk about science and scientists in Africa. If you have been attentive enough, you would know by now that governments in Africa are rather taken up or seem to be taken up by science.
If they are not talking about the imperative to lay emphasis on science subjects in primary and secondary schools, you will find them going on about how important it is that universities admit more science students than those wishing to study “useless subjects” in the arts and social sciences.
Today, whichever African government you can think of is prioritising STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for funding by the state and other privileges. So badly in need of scientists are we that we are willing to sacrifice everything else in the pursuit of producing as many of them as possible.
There are very good reasons for this. We are told constantly about how countries that have done well economically and which we seek or would like to emulate, invested heavily in training scientists. It is difficult to argue against that. Heaps of academic studies provide ample proof of the validity of those claims.
The emphasis on STEM formed the major part of my conversations about science. One of my interlocutors was an eminent African scientist whose talents and expertise have seen him soar to dizzying heights in his field here in Africa and abroad.
The other was a youngish social scientist. He formerly worked for a university, left to become a bureaucrat, but never let go of thinking, researching and writing. He has firm ideas about the dangers of sending brilliant young Africans to top universities in the West to study science without planning what they will or should do when they eventually return home.
The other is an old friend working in the field of innovation. He knows a great deal about inventions and innovations by African scientists that die at conception stage or that never see life beyond the prototype stage.
The conversations took place in different places, miles apart. The local contexts are also different. That, however, did not prevent our views from converging on one thing at least: There is a need to subject the current obsession with STEM to serious debate.
Some of our governments are getting away with simply jumping onto this bandwagon without doing the necessary thinking about the why, the how, and the after.
Why does Africa need scientists as badly as the advocates of STEM claim it does? One could say that without them, Africa cannot do such things as industrialise and make things. Apparently, in making things is where hope for eradicating poverty, a key imperative, lies.
The trouble with this thinking is that it is based on a simple equation: Once you have many scientists, you can industrialise and make things. Now think of all the scientists and innovators roaming Africa fruitlessly looking for money to turn inventions into useable products.
Neither governments nor their miniscule or parochial business communities that focus more on trading than on manufacturing are organised enough to support such people.
Meanwhile the mantra “we need more scientists” goes unchallenged, even as the continent’s young scientists who go to study in the West tend to stay there because “there is nothing to do” at home, as their societies remain unequipped to use them.
And is it actually true that Africa has too many social scientists and so government money should not be wasted on training more? This is another general claim that goes unchallenged.
If you want to know how debatable it is, think of how many foreign consultants flock to Africa every year to advise governments on issues related to poverty and its eradication, how to restructure governments, economies and administrative systems, and even whole systems of education.
Think of how many come out every year to teach us about the importance of civil society or even human rights. There are lots more of these than those coming to help us set up factories or science laboratories.
So if we have too many social scientists, why do we import so many? And if we need scientists that badly, what do we actually need them for, and why do the few that we train tend to leave and stay wherever they go, suggesting that they are needed out there a lot more than here?
And now think of the even softer things such as the arts. I have been to many places in Africa. One thing I don’t see much of are well-maintained museums.
In many African countries, you will be lucky to find functioning national theatres where you can watch a play or a musical. Can governments that neglect culture know what to do with science and scientists?
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]