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University of Johannesburg: Science literacy is a critical key to unlocking the potential of Africa — but it is sorely lacking

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This week, I gave a talk on science literacy at the Science and Technology in Society Forum in Kyoto, Japan. As we become further entrenched in the technology-intensive economy powered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), there are glaring and stark deficits and gaps.

In order to adapt to this new economy, there needs to be a more significant focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and science literacy for all. However, the inequities in the Stem field with regard to geographic and gender inequity persist, particularly on the African continent. We need to change this!

This has a ripple effect on science literacy as the lack of representation perpetuates gaps that filter down across spheres and disciplines. According to the 2016 Gender Gap Report published by World Economic Forum, the global gender gap stands at 47%, and 30% of male students graduate from Stem subjects compared to only 16% of female students.

Furthermore, the Covid pandemic has widened the already-existing gap in African Stem education. The African Development Bank has reported that fewer than 25% of African higher education students pursue Stem-related careers.

Therefore, it is critical to reframe our approach to education in Africa at every tier to ensure that we bridge these gaps, not only within Stem fields but beyond, in a way that fundamentally speaks to Africa’s developmental agenda.

From the impact of climate change as a growing threat to the lives and livelihoods in Africa to the economic disruptions stemming from the Russia-Ukraine war, which could push a further 1.8 million people across the African continent into extreme poverty in 2022, and another 2.1 million in 2023 to our additional financing needs, which are currently estimated at $432-billion, to the lingering impact of Covid-19, it is apparent that the continent’s growth story is facing a trough.

We are a world away from the “Africa rising” story that dominated prior to the pandemic, which was projected to lift the regions’ “bottom millions” out of poverty by 2030. If we are to reignite our growth story, adapting to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the skills required has to be a priority.

Our weaknesses include the quality of education systems — from primary to university levels — and scientific research institutions, as well as weak innovation ecosystems and poor enabling infrastructure to support growth.

Historically, a lack of investment in science and technology has undermined economic transformation on the continent. Without the economic and scientific infrastructure necessary for innovation, the continent has continued to rely on the colonial development model of resource extraction, which emphasises poverty, and aid dependence and is fundamentally unsustainable.

Of course, there is recognition of the need to upskill and reskill workers to cope with new technologies and digitised processes. While new roles, opportunities and industries emerge, we are under pressure to bridge the gap between skills, automation and jobs, to ensure that we are closing the gaps. At the heart of this is a fundamental requirement for science literacy for all.

If we consider that technology is the practical application of scientific research, it is imperative for us all to have basic science literacy. This conversation is often had at a very superficial level. Whittling down from government to support staff and beyond, we need to instil practices and strategies that enable individuals to understand, synthesise and communicate scientific knowledge.

Access to science, through science literacy, is imperative for creating policy, understanding these policies and the application thereof. Creating an ecosystem where economic transformation and policymaking decisions are predicated on scientific culture will marshal sustainability alongside innovation.

One area that requires a specific mention is the capacitation of our lawmakers to make them more scientifically literate. This is exacerbated by the need to draft legislations that interface with science and technology.

For example, there is an increasing need in Africa to regulate issues such as clinical trials, and this requires literacy in biotechnology and ethics. How do we fill this knowledge gap?

Universities should create short learning programmes that target lawmakers to become scientifically literate. Public broadcasting must have a strong focus on scientific literacy. There is a need to instil a culture of activism geared towards promoting scientific literacy. We need to use online platforms to promote scientific literacy.

This would naturally require access to data and electronic devices and would require government, industry and society to work together. Another issue that requires attention to promote scientific literacy, is the issue of reducing the language barriers that impede scientific literacy.

For example, there are 11 official languages in South Africa, and many of these are not being developed to introduce scientific terminology. How then do we create a system that allows broadcasting scientific work in local languages?

None of this can be done with our current Stem disparities and lack of science literacy. If Africa is to have any hope of leveraging technology to drive large-scale transformation and competitiveness on the continent, calls for greater emphasis on Stem education and a push towards science literacy beyond our education systems is the key to unlocking the potential that exists.