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We don’t need more scientists, we can’t find jobs for those we have

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Frederick Golooba-Mutebi  

By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

Posted  Thursday, March 16   2017 at  17:18

In Summary

  • 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.

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.

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