Science has been defined as “the acquisition of knowledge”, while technology is “the application of this acquired knowledge.” This was the definition I learned back in secondary school and it is so simple that even as a young child it stuck. According to Wikipedia, science is from the Latin word scientia meaning “knowledge”, while technology is from two Greek words techne meaning “art, skill or craft” and logia meaning “study of.” Wherever you are reading this piece, you don’t have to think too far to see how science and technology have changed the standard of living and in essence, are unavoidable. If this is the case, then does an argument need to be made for the benefits of this for the public sector? Shouldn’t science and technology speak for themselves through human attachment to their benefits? Why does it appear that this field is stagnant back on the African continent or even when there is some progress, it is initiated by outsiders and not locals?
A few months ago, I came across a story and a YouTube video where young women scientists from the developing world were honored. There were three African women on the list: Drs Osowole and Ademola from Nigeria for Chemical and Physical Sciences respectively and Dr. Evans from South Africa for Biological Sciences. I was both proud and amazed because upon examining the list, all the other scientists recognized were from different countries; there were no two scientists from the same country except Nigeria. I remember thinking to myself; this is what Nigeria (and the continent) should be in the news for. Though I have no idea about the nomination process nor the size of the pool of nominees, it made me acknowledge the importance of scientists being recognized for the work they are doing. It got me thinking about the state of science and technology in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world.
If we look at the history of science, there was a time when only those who were rich or well off were performing experiments and making discoveries (a la Antoine Lavoisier, Isaac Newton and Galileo). This is because scientific research was, and is still often expensive and time-consuming and as such, its pursuit was available to only a few. As time went on and advances were made, resources would come from both government agencies and private organizations. The reason for this is quite clear: governments could benefit from improving the lives of its citizens and private organizations could make money off these improvements. With this switch in available resources, it meant that more and more people could conduct research. This is the model adopted in most countries today.
As a scientist, I often look to the United States (US) as a model clearly because the impact of science and technology is most ubiquitous there and it is at the frontier of scientific discovery. In the US, scientific research is mostly aided by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health and the Department of Energy. Grants are written and are required to show the significance of the research, how the research results will be disseminated and the local and national influence of such research on the next generation of scientists. A similar model was suggested by former President Obasanjo in 2006 to create such an agency in Nigeria (Nigerian National Science Foundation) with $5 billion but this plan never materialized. There was hope that this plan would be revived during the presidencies of Umar Yar’Adua, in his capacity as a chemistry graduate and Goodluck Jonathan with a PhD in Zoology, but that did not happen. The fact is that such government expenditure will need all branches of the government to agree on the impact of science and technology on the standard of living and this is often a classic hurdle.
Although science and technology has proliferated in our lives, those who hold the keys to its success (through the provision of funds) are usually not scientists and are still rather focused on private short-term benefits to realize how relevant such an expenditure would be to citizens. The long-term nature of scientific benefits impedes the willingness of such individuals to commit funds to its development.
As I look ahead to the future, my hope is that science and technology will rise as it has in most developed countries. It has already begun with the women scientists honored in September 2011 and my hope is that they will blaze the trail for other young scientists under them. Perhaps their story will be told at a legislative hearing and become a force in the recognition of science and technology as an imperative in improving our lot as a country.