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South Africa igniting conversations about Science


Society lives and strives on the exchange of information for communication and everyday life. All this is made possible and easy through the application of Science. There is no aspect of life that Science has not improved and made easier, faster and/or safer. It results in our daily dependents in the form of health, transportation and communication products. However with all its good strides, there is mistrust and fear in the hearts and minds of those who are less informed about Science and technology especially those in underprivileged communities as they think that Science is for the privileged few. Given the importance of Science and its necessity to our daily lives, the above statement warrants urgent and honest talks amongst science stakeholders (society). It is for that reason that I support the “Ignition of conversations about how Science, Technology and Innovation is changing society”.

First of all, the word ‘Science’ has been loosely thrown around and differently used. From Political sciences, Social sciences, etc. But what is Science? It is the concerted efforts by mankind to gather intellect that enables for the better understanding of the natural world, its history and how it operates. This done through observations and testing (trial and error) of the physical occurrences as evidence for the basis of that pursued knowledge for its (knowledge) sake. Through this knowledge, we can predict what is to happen – through hypotheses. Upon acquiring this knowledge (of processes and techniques), we gain insight into the root of existing challenges, identify new ones and anticipate those that are still to come. We then devote it for application by creating tools and developing technical means to solve the identified challenges in the lives we lead for better and easier operations in and of our lives. This is what we call Technology! One of the first noticeable technologies are that of converting natural resources to tools by our ancestors – Homo habilis – to kill animals for food.

Innovation on the other hand (seen as a subset of technology), is simply defined as a ‘new’ idea, device and/or method of addressing a challenge(s) more effective and/or efficient than previous ways of addressing these challenges. One can say “it offers unprecedented ways that meet new requirements and unarticulated needs. It gives you solutions to a problem(s) you have not yet identified”. Transformation is obligatory when all historic practices no longer work, and Innovation offers us this transformation.

In a South African context, before I attempt to contribute to the theme, it is always both solicitous and helpful to consciously acknowledge the nature of this country, its history and status quo. As it was stated in the currently released report on ‘Public Perception of Biotechnology in South Africa’ by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) conducted for the Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme for the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, South Africa has a highly stratified society – that is characterised by divisions that are results and products of historical occurrences of exploitation, exclusion and gender mortification. These divisions are along the lines of economic disparities, gender, educational disparities, race, ethnicity and geographical locations. These categories further intersect to create unique social classes that form part of – and to a certain extant is – the South African society. The ‘unfortunate’ amongst us are the poor, uneducated and unskilled, elderly, and women living in rural villages and/or townships. These divides create barriers and challenges to access to information. So we have to be considerate of them.

For us to better carry out what we hope to achieve, we have to breakdown our theme/topic. First, we want to ignite. Ignition in this case means to cause an exciting conversation about the matter in question. In practical terms, ignition is associated with fire and three things are required for a fire to start and/or be sustained. These are fuel, an oxidizing agent (oxygen) and heat. Now for this conversation to be fruitful, what will be our ingredients?  I will leave this question open. Still on the issue of ignition, we have what is called Minimum Ignition Energy (MIE), which is the minimum amount of energy required to ignite a combustible material (vapour, gas or dust cloud). For example, the ignition of a fuel/air mixture is only possible when the rate of heat liberation near the ignition zone is greater than the heat lost by conduction. Ours is a science-society mixture and the quest to ignite conversations about Science, technology and Innovation (STI) requires its own MIE.

Fire requirements triangle (ignition triangle)

Since conversation is essential to our goal, we ought to understand what kind we are to have. For all intents and purposes, a conversation is a form of social interactive communication between two or more people who exchange news and ideas for the purpose of establishing and/or maintaining social ties. Since conversation is a social interaction, it therefore depends on social conventions such as the cooperative principle and Grice’s maxim of quality (which I think will be critical if we really want to succeed). Those who obey these conventions will make sure that what they say furthers the purpose of the conversation. Grice tells us to 1) make our contributions as informative as is required (for the purpose of the exchange) and 2) to not make our contributions more informative than required. Failure to adhere to these conventions might result in the deterioration of the conversation into chaotic arguments and banters instead of meaningful constructive discussions. However, this might prove difficult given the nature of our society (its divisions and social strata).

So for the conversation to be of a progressive form and nature – fostering the intentions of the forum and will of society – participants should have a shared intended end goal. In our case, the goal should be, as is, to ignite everlasting conversations about STI in society. Because of the social dynamics of our country (stated above), our approach to this commendable cause should be of a unique nature. Our conversations and the messages they carry should be tailor-made for a specific audience to ensure that the end goal remains shared. For example, an STI conversation held in Sandton cannot be the same one that is held in Segoahleng, Ga – Mashashane, Limpopo. The challenges in Sandton are astronomically different to the ones experienced in Segoahleng and therefore require different conversations. Which brings us to the issue of what society is, and how it ought to be describe for the purpose of this endeavour. In our case, as long as people share basic attributes, identify with them and receive some form of identification with it, they are a society. It can be from territory membership to dominant cultural behaviour and expectations. So we have to categorise it in a South African context.

Therefore type of conversations we should have, are those that serve a specific strata of people for their empowerment and development before any other thing. This can be done by first identifying our long-term goals and then work back to identify all the conditions that must be in place (pre-conditions for achieving the long term goals). This means that the scientific topic which is to be discussed must – if we are serious – originate from the strata of society from which we are to communicate in/at. The purpose of these conversations should be to – in real terms and not just ideally – equip the people involved with the necessary tools to analyse their surroundings and develop methods, techniques and tools to respond to experienced challenges faced daily. This offers a liberating pedagogic discussion. This will result in progressive change.

For too long science has been pursued and research conducted for the purpose of publishing our findings not for the public good but for personal glory and social capital amongst the scientific community. In my own well-though personal opinion, I think it’s time we move towards a science that is people centred and offers more enlightened and continuous improvement towards the human condition. This way, we will address challenges faster and introduce progressive change and demystify Science from being seen as a field for the elites.

One of the progressive programmes we can learn from is the Love Life programme. When HIV/AIDS was a stigma, the Love life programme went throughout the country educating people about the disease and syndrome and holistic youth development. It had young enthusiasts in different corners or the country articulating their message. The scope of consultations and conversations included the youth through what they called the ‘schools’ network’ where Love Life had its agents (for lack of better word) called ‘GroundBreakers’ adopting and registering schools. It further extended this to family programmes where they “recognise the significant role that parents play in influencing the lives of youth” and opened communication about sex and sexuality between parent and child.
If we as Scientists and science enthusiasts are to employ a programme like this, not only will we be empowering society through science conversations and fostering change but we will also be training communicators in general and science communicators in particular for the public good.

// Maboni Malose

Maboni is a Biologist by profession, Science enthusiast and self-proclaimed people’s scientist who is a journalist at MashTowRadio and Seipone, interning as a Science Journalist with SAASTA and is the founder of the Science Students’ Association at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.