Science needs a better sales pitch

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The #FeesMustFall movement and the ongoing student protests around South Africa’s university campuses have provided fodder for every political (and other) agenda. From politicians, to student representatives, to concerned parents, to faculty, and even to big business – everyone has voiced an opinion and used the movement to highlight their particular point of view on this and a number of related subjects.

Science needs a better sales pitchAnd as is the case in most South African stories, #FeesMustFall has provided room for some dark humour in the face of a very serious concern and what looks like institutional collapse. Most notably, the #ScienceMustFall offshoot of the student protests has seen the country continue the debate about the “decolonisation” of universities with a little more levity.

The hash tag, the result of a video posted on YouTube of a student demanding that science “be scratched off” curricula because “as whole [it] is a product of Western modernity”, has seen comments ranging from the silly to the insightful. The most famous is probably a tweet by Ryk van Niekkerk: “How can you demand #sciencemustfall if you don’t believe in gravity?”

However, while the student’s position has been derided across the globe, an op-ed in the Daily Maverick provides some room for thought about where her stance might lead in the ongoing conversation about the “decolonisation” of education. “As science journalists, we are the first to agree that the student got her argument wrong. It is inaccurate and unhelpful to imply that science is somehow un-African. That would be to deny the contributions of thousands of African scientists. Science, at its heart, is a way of understanding the world. It does not belong to a single nation or culture,” write Sarah Wild and Linda Nordling.

“However, there is truth in the notion that science needs to be decolonised. This is not an issue of science itself. Science is a way of understanding the world based on observation and repeated measurement. One of the central tenets of science is that it must be reproducible – if an experiment cannot be repeated with the same results, the theory underpinning it can’t be accepted. But the system of science is another matter. That system has been created by people, and that is where the problem comes in.”

They go on to say that much of what we today refer to as scientific knowledge has been amassed by people – until recently overwhelmingly white and male – based in Europe and North America.

“Even today, with science a global endeavour, these traditional centres of knowledge keep churning out a disproportionately large amount of global science. This is where the money and the Nobel prizes go — for now. There is a great weight of history behind science which means that those who have been doing it the longest have had a chance to shape it – sometimes without even realising they are doing so.”

They conclude that a large part of the problem is that science is not relevant to the majority of Africa’s citizens. “The reality is that many South Africans see the country spending money on telescopes (or accelerator mass spectrometers or ocean robots) and do not see how they could be useful on the ground, how they use African knowledge, and what direct relevance they have to citizens’ lives. Unfortunately, that is what happens in a country where science is something so other to their daily lives,” they write.

This is the same sentiment expressed by the many, many people bemoaning the lack of interest in STEM subjects in schools and universities, but with a slightly different angle. Usually, the arguments centre on the poor educational foundations and gender biases that keep learners away from the sciences. Perhaps the problem is the fact that South Africans truly don’t understand the value of science because they have never personally experienced the benefits such a knowledge system can bring – or at least have never correlated the technological advancements they enjoy on a daily basis with science.

While many South Africans still don’t have access to electricity or fresh water, those would be bad examples. But every single person living in this country uses a cellphone, and that’s science in action right there.

Perhaps instead of making arguments about the benefits Newtonian physics have brought the world, scientists need to engage in a better sales pitch. A little clever marketing would go a long way to changing perceptions about the sciences, and what they mean in every individual’s life.

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Copyright: kittisaktaramas / 123RF Stock Photo

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.