The coevolution of science and society

Science should serve society, in the same way as society serves science

Science should serve society, in the same way as society serves science

African societies — with their myriad economic and social challenges — offer a richest testing-bed for scientific research. They also offer unprecedented opportunities for applying the world’s abundant scientific knowledge and engineering expertise to solve societal problems.

Conventional wisdom informs African policymakers that their economies are likely to grow if they invest significantly in basic research and development (R&D). This is often presented as devoting a minimum of 1% of a country’s GDP to R&D.

There is a case for investing in R&D but not because of the linear view that such investments will result in new products that would then be deployed to drive economic growth. This view assumes that a one-way flow of events: from basic to applied R&D and to societal impacts. 

The view also treats science as if it was something that happens outside society, and this perception is not entirely unfounded. Many in the scientific community would prefer to receive financial support for their research without the related expectation of addressing social challenges.

As outlined by the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024), the real reason to invest in R&D is to respond to challenges in key sectors such as agriculture, health, ecological management, and the built environment.

Much of Africa’s scientific advancement will come from technologists and engineers encountering obstacles that may yield new scientific insights. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, for example, stems from efforts to improve the steam engine: the technology was first developed to help pump water from flooded mines. In this case, science followed engineering. 

Science can therefore be advanced as part of the ongoing investment in infrastructure projects and expansion of entrepreneurial activities across the continent. Using a similar approach, African countries could start to think of their natural resources not just solely as export commodities, but reservoirs for geological knowledge as well as a basis for advancing material science and technology.

Similarly, the efforts to address Africa’s problems in diverse fields might yield new scientific discoveries that are directly linked to the continent’s challenges. In this respect, science would serve society just as society serves science. The two may coevolve and shape each other over time.

Take the example of mobile phones. Africans did not invent the original technologies underlying mobile communication, but through their use Africans are now moving rapidly to the frontiers of mathematics, especially as they develop algorithms for locally relevant apps. 

In the same vein, Africa can leapfrog decades of prior technologies by starting to harness for civilian use the power of technologies such as solar photovoltaics, 3D printing, drones, robots, satellites and synthetic biology, especially gene editing.

Pushing the frontiers of agricultural research in response to challenges such as climate change and drought is likely to yield new scientific breakthroughs. Such research results will the lead to further advancement of agricultural research and economic development. The relationship between the two is not linear but iterative.

The coevolution between science and society challenges not only our view of the place of scientists in society, but the very definition of what we consider to be science. It also calls into question the dominant design of the research landscape in most African countries.

There is a popular view that separates science from other technical fields, especially engineering. In fact, much of the work of engineers is credited to scientists, especially by the press. Scientists take the credit for new technology products and engineers usually shoulder the blame when technologies fail.

Accepting the view that science and society coevolve requires the recognition of engineering and other disciplines as being integral to the research enterprise. Forums that bring scientists together should also endeavour to accommodate technologists, engineers and associated experts from the social sciences and humanities. This has implications for the way that universities are structured. It calls for greater emphasis on trans-disciplinary collaboration. Such an approach is not just about the token inclusion of experts from other fields; genuine efforts must be made to bring diverse disciplines together to help find solutions to social problems.

Equally important is the need to address the separation between research, teaching, and the extension and commercialisation of new products; in many African countries this is backed up by law. Research institutes undertake research but they do not teach. Conversely, university lecturers concentrate on teaching with limited support, incentives or time for research.

One way to bridge these gaps is to gradually create a new generation of universities that combine research, teaching, extension and commercialisation of new products and services. Such “innovation universities” should reflect the view that science and society coevolve.

Indeed, some countries reflect this confluence in the structure of their ministries. Japan, for example, has one ministry dealing with education, culture, sports, science and technology. In many African countries science is viewed as the opposite of culture. Most African governments lump culture with arts, tourism and handicrafts. Only the Comoros placed research and culture in one ministry. The point here is not to copy the Japanese model, but to highlight the fact that most African countries consider science as separate from culture. The tendency is to define culture in static terms, despite considerable evidence of creativity in handicrafts, making them loci of innovation. 

Improving the capacity of existing institutions to foster research requires building capacity in innovation management. It is for this reason that the Harvard Kennedy School has launched the Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in Africa (TIE-Africa) Executive Program with a $1-million gift from the Schooner Foundation to assist African countries build their innovation management capacity. 

The time has come for African countries to view their social and economic challenges as opportunities for scientific advancement. It is also time to bring science and other fields such as engineering, the social sciences, and humanities to bear on societal challenges. Only through such collaboration can we hope to advance both science and society as an integral whole.

Professor Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School. His next book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016