Ramaphosa and the science of the spotlight

It’s not often that South African science gets to be glam, but once a year scientists dust off their glad rags and show off to the country. This year’s Science Forum South Africa had an additional enticement: deputy president and ANC presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa.

It’s the consistent lament of science communicators and PRs: how do you get journalists to a science event? Well, apparently, all you need is a deputy president. Twenty minutes ahead of the opening plenary, all seats were taken, people lined the walls and stairs of the main auditorium at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and ushers closed the doors. As science minister – and Ramaphosa’s selection as ANC deputy – Naledi Pandor pointed out, “if you have a leader of the country in your science forum, then you know you’ve cracked it”.

“We wish to showcase African science and technology to the world, change the way they talk about us. Too little is known about the contributions Africans make to global science,” she said.

At least one valuable thing has already come out of the conference: by having Ramaphosa – currently in the spotlight with the ANC elective conference a few days away – newsrooms around the country are finally hearing about the country’s national space agency, its genomics programmes, hydrogen fuel cell development, and that there is more to South African science that astronomy and fossils.

It was also refreshing to have a senior politician and leader of state (aside from the science minister) take such a pro-intellectual stance. “The word ‘smart’ should underpin whatever we do,” Ramaphosa said. “If we work smart, we are working in a clever way, an innovative way, a scientific way.”

He continued to say that, “there is nothing wrong with our young people”.“There is something very wrong with us when we do not give them the opportunity.”

It’s just as well he didn’t stay for later in the day, when outspoken commentator Jonathan Jansen took the podium. “Are we connecting [the forum’s] enthusiasm for science to the fact that eight out of 10 children cannot read?” he asked. “What’s gone wrong is not technology, we’ve lost our soul. If you create someone else’s child differently to how you treat your own, you’ve lost your soul.”

That is the jarring discord that the forum strikes every year: while it talks about the great science on the continent, it is unable to look away from the catastrophe in early schooling in most African countries. “Almost every act of teaching in South Africa is a compensatory act,” Jansen said. “They are making up for something that was supposed to be taught earlier.”

But while the first day of the Science Forum South Africa has policy heavy, alternating between a clarion call from politicians and policymakers to make science relevant to communities, there was also some actual science.

The world is a better place, knowing that two scientists – Dr Lara Atkinson from the South African Earth Observation Network and Dr Kerry Sink from the South African National Biodiversity Institute – spend their days collaborating to figure out what creatures are living in South Africa’s offshore waters. Atkinson said that she and colleagues had “rediscovered” four marine species thought to be extinct, and discovered 21 new species.

Sink takes this knowledge and applies it: whether it is to bioprospecting or developing policy for marine protected areas. She ended her presentation with a coral found off South Africa’s coast, pointing out that they can live for 4 000 years and contain the history of our climate and world.

So, while there are challenges and politics, day one also told the story of two scientists, building our understanding of the world, one species at a time.

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