• July 10th, 2020

Opinion - The ‘perquisite’ of a science-literate society

Science and technology (S&T) are touted globally by governments as crucial pillars of socio-economic development, as can be gleaned from the policy contexts and development plans of most countries.
 Decades-long snapshots of scientific and technological innovations over the past three centuries (since the First Industrial Revolution, circa 1760-1840), provide impressive revelations. In toto, S&T innovations permeate every aspect of modern life, explicitly and implicitly impacting the quality of life - at every level of government, organization or business and personal life, and the natural environment. This is observable in how the public – as citizens, voters, and consumers – receive and relate to every-day provisioning of goods and services. Health care and education, how we work, communicate, entertain and relax, and how we appreciate or participate in industrial development and the changing natural environment, are fundamental examples.

If there were unrevealed factors defining the importance of S&T in socio-economic development, the current coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) has shown us how unsustainably humanity has been developing in the various aspects of life and the economy. It has exposed many countries’ fallibility in terms of skills and infrastructure development, and near-total dependency on foreign markets, even for basic consumer goods. Self-reliance and sustainability are now in sharp focus that sheds light on alternative means, and home-grown products and solutions.
The crisis has brought to the fore the indispensable role of science and technology in national development – in health care, education, research, etc. At the same time the crisis has crystallised the importance of “public science/scientific literacy” (PSL), also referred to as “civic scientific literacy,” “science for citizenship,” or “public understanding of science.” In many instances, PSL is limited to aspects of the “natural sciences” or “hard sciences,” primarily the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, but excluding the “soft sciences” 

The essence of PSL is to establish basic understanding of science and to improve attitudes toward science literacy, thereby addressing the challenge of improving STEM learning, creating industries and employment in STEM fields, and promoting research and development (R&D). These are often the measures of innovation, which, in turn, is driven by public policy (government’s ability to encourage and support innovation). This is a focal point in Namibia’s development agenda, as explicated in legislation on research, science and technology, as well as on industrialization. Overall, these and similar initiatives should enhance Namibia’s international innovation index (measure of innovation level). The solutions to the current and future global crises lie in science, technology and innovation (STI), which make it an absolute imperative for any society to embrace, enhance and promote science and PSL.

Science education and PSL are complementary. On the one hand, science is defined as any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena, and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. It involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws. 
On the other hand, science literacy involves the comprehension not just of basic concepts, but also importantly requires comprehension of the importance of “falsifiability” of scientific theories and hypotheses, the knowledge that scientific inquiry is value-laden, and an understanding of the problem-solving nature of scientific inquiry. 

 In other words, science literacy is important because it provides a context for addressing societal problems through economic (tools), political/democratic (law and policy formulation) and cultural (identity) sophistication. It is in this context that a science-literate populace can assuredly acquire a scientific mindset and buy-in and better cope with many of its challenges (such as pandemics and other emergencies) by making intelligent and informed decisions that will affect the quality of their own lives and children’s lives. 
Science literacy can be promoted mainly in two ways: i) cultivating and promoting STI through focused education, research and innovation in schools, universities and research institutions or agencies; and ii) educating the general public on science, technology and innovation (STI) through multi- and interdisciplinary programs.

Therefore, understanding STI in the broader context beyond academic disciplines is a counter-measure against misconceptions founded in myths, misinformation, arrogance and ignorance. 
By implication, a citizen’s participation in and appreciating of legislation (laws and regulations) on natural resources, medicines control, technology, industrialization are enhanced immensely by basic understanding of STI. In turn, this enhances the citizens’ fuller participation in socio-economic development.

The prevailing pandemic and emergencies give us a unique opportunity to reflect anew on Namibia’s capabilities in STI and its development path, considering past policies, resource allocation and achievements, current policy performance, and a future trajectory.
The campaign undertaken against Covid-19 globally is an excellent exercise in public education, although permeated with flaws and fake news, and it is positively envisaged to have added great value to science education and science literacy. Society has in general, and will continue to shift to science or technology-based solutions, and conceivably, many young people will be inspired to study science. In similar ways, nations can initiate and sustain broader science education and literacy programs that will change national landscapes in terms of citizen participation in science education, science-based legislation, R&D, innovation and industrialization.
To accelerate development, it is critical to boost Namibia’s current global competitiveness ranking, now at 94/151, which is, in part, highly influenced by STI: Namibia’s ranking places it in the bottom one-third of performance, with innovation capacity at 80/141, R&D expenditure at 76/141, R&D output at 109/141, scientific publications at 109/141, patent applications at 97/141, and research institutions prominence at 91/141. The international innovation index stands at 101/110.

 Going forward, Namibia’s focus and accelerated development of STI and PSL, as foundations for future growth, should magnify her competitiveness and productivity. That, in turn, will support the Africa Union’s 50-year Agenda 2063, which accounts for Africa’s contemporary levels of development and persistence. This to be done by harnessing STI to help solve six key grand challenges: i) building infrastructure, ii) eliminating hunger, iii) improving human development, iv) protecting the environment, v) enhancing social cohesion, and vi) spreading prosperity.

 On the whole, there are many reasons and opportunities for local and global initiatives and partnerships to boost or support the Namibian government’s public policy, investment and initiatives in science education and science literacy. 
The prevailing crisis at the dawn of this decade provides an opportune time for Namibia to amplify the civic science imperative through pertinent, focused public dialogue, public policy, enhanced investments. This will strengthen the interest and education of future scientists, and the citizens’ meaningful participation in STI, R&D and industrial development through interdisciplinary cooperation. Achieving this feat is an assured benefit of a science-literate nation.

Staff Reporter
2020-06-19 09:50:09 | 21 days ago

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