/ 6 December 2016

Why have a science forum?

The MeerKAT radio telescope, to become part of the international Square Kilometre Array project, is one of South Africa's most high profile science projects, but there is a lot more to be proud of. Photo: SKA
The MeerKAT radio telescope, to become part of the international Square Kilometre Array project, is one of South Africa's most high profile science projects, but there is a lot more to be proud of. (Photo: SKA)

Most of South African research is unrecognised and unknown, particularly by the general public. Yes, there are the headline grabbers — the discovery of Homo naledi (a new species of human ancestor) and the ambition and excitement of the Square Kilometre Array (which will be the largest scientific experiment on Earth, a large portion of it located in our backyard) — but those represent only the tip of the local research iceberg.

We have 18 000 researchers working in universities, research councils and industry, trying to understand South Africa and its people, and to find solutions to its problems.

But that is not a face of South Africa — and Africa, for that matter — that is often seen by the rest of the world, or by most South Africans. This is why events like Science Forum South Africa are so important. “It is one place where we showcase scientists,” Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said ahead of the forum. “We want to make a tradition of science in Africa.”

Last year was the first Science Forum South Africa. The initiative is an attempt to replicate the open forums found in other countries and continents, such as the Euroscience Open Forum, the American Association for the Advancement of Science or Japan’s Science Agora. It was also a first for the country and the continent.

At the launch of the forum last year, Daan du Toit, deputy director-general for international co-operation and resources at the department of science and technology, said: “Our goal … is to put science at the service of the country and discuss in an open forum how best to harness science for the benefit of society.

“It’s not a strict policy conference and neither is it a purely scientific conference, where scientists are speaking to themselves.”

These forums are a strange mixture of cutting-edge research, current controversy and public-centred sessions. They try to crack open the door to a world that few are privy to or get to experience.

Despite the fact that the department of science and technology spends about R137-million a year on science outreach and communication, many South Africans remain oblivious to the role research and science play in their lives.

This is perhaps exemplified by a member of Shackville TRC at the University of Cape Town, who said — rather infamously now — that #sciencemustfall. “Science as whole is a product of Western modernity and needs to be scratched off,” she said emphatically.

This is not only a failure on her part — to understand the nature of science, which is a way of thinking and examining the world and which does not belong to any one culture or nation — but on the part of the South African academic and media systems, and their communication of the research and science that we do as a country.

In and among some rather misguided comments, the student called for “knowledge produced by us, that speaks to us and that is able to accommodate knowledge from our perspective”.

The failure of the academic, government and media system is that this university student is unaware that this knowledge already exists and is growing daily.

A vital aspect of platforms like Science Forum South Africa is to show the world — and potential international collaborators — that African researchers are conducting important, quality research. But perhaps an even more important element is to show South Africans themselves what is happening in their country, with their tax money.

In her address to the Science Forum South Africa last year, African Union chair Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma said: “In terms of African development, do we want to go back to the industrial revolution, or use science to leapfrog? We don’t want to be the recipients of technology. We want to manufacture, so we need science to do that.

“Everything that is a priority for the African Union needs science … I cannot think of anything we are doing that does not need science.”

This year is more focused on social sciences and Pan-Africanism. “We want more participation by Africans in the diaspora, and more African scientists in general — this was somewhat missing last year,” said Pandor.

It’s also possible that the department is using Science Forum South Africa as a blueprint for a continent-wide open conference to encourage collaboration and communication about research undertaken on the continent. The department this year established an African science office in Addis Ababa, so it is definitely pursuing an African strategy.

Early next year, the department of science and technology — the driver of this event — will take stock and decide if Science Forum South Africa will be an annual event or something to look forward to every two years. Pandor said that she wanted to keep the forum “fresh” as “an annual conference might be overkill”.

One thing, however, is for certain: now that South Africa has found a successful way to showcase researchers and research on the continent, it is not likely to relinquish it. Prepare yourself for Science Forum South Africa 2017 or 2018.


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