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Covid has ushered in the golden age for scientists

By XN Iraki | April 6th 2021


“Describe a scientist that you know.”  If you put this question to a group of non-scientists, the answers are usually predictable - boring, thoughtful, analytical, quiet, busy or lonely.

Some could add unromantic. By the way, mathematicians are what many Kenyans would call watermelons (both scientists and artists).  

That scientists do not enjoy the admiration of a majority of us is not in doubt.

It is not surprising because our first encounter with scientists, who happened to be our science teachers, may not have been very pleasant in that they made us carry out complex experiments that taxed our young brains.  

Add calculations, and we longed for the day we would be emancipated from the tyranny of these scientists.

We succeed with 75 per cent of students in our universities studying social sciences, albeit the “soft” options.

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Many will contest the use of the term “soft,” claiming there is nothing soft about the subjects.

But reading a novel is softer than dissecting a rabbit. More convincing is that scientists can defect to social sciences but not the other way round. 

Some high school subjects made matters worse with assignments that started: “solve the following problems.”

Maths was notorious for such. Has that changed? Why not start with “have fun solving the following problems?”

Taking drama and music festival winners to State House and leaving out science congress winners did not make matters any better.

I can also bet your Member of County Assembly (MCA) is more respected, more feared and probably paid better than a PhD holder. 

The negative attitude toward science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) has been very costly to our country and Africa in general.

Yet we do not seem to understand how our fate as a continent is tied to science and technology. Let me try and explain. 

One, we make many decisions that are not informed by data but by our emotions.

When presented with data, we switch off. How much data is used in parliamentary arguments and elsewhere?

Without data and evidence, we make wrong decisions that might take years to undo.  Interestingly, humanities try to mimic the thinking of scientist even calling themselves “social scientists.”

But their success has been limited. Taking a few science courses could bridge that gap; this is common in American universities.

“Hard scientists” also take some courses in humanities. The cause and effect thinking that underlies science is a big asset in any discipline and decision-making. 

It so happens that social scientists are likely to rise to the top echelons in both the corporate and public sectors as they can easily appeal to emotions and have time for networking.

Scientists may not have that time or motivation. Who said meritocracy works all the time? 

At lower levels in our education system, social scientists are likely to become leaders, be they headmasters or principals as they prefer to be called.

Students come to think that the route to the top is not through science or  STEM. Teachers Service Commission should decree that a principal and their deputy should always be a combination of pure and social sciences. 

Two, most of the groundbreaking research is based on STEM. Does it surprise you that we haven’t got a vaccine for Covid-19 in Kenya?

Great companies are spawned by STEM innovations. Think of Google, Apple, Toyota, Haier or closer home Safaricom.

Yet the rising number of Kenyan PhDs are in social sciences. Are you still annoyed with my “soft option?” 

Three, science has a solution to most of our problems. But we have been brought up believing that all that one needs is money to get what you want.

There is no need of understanding the science behind these solutions. How many have bothered to know how a  phone, car or vaccine works?

Ever bothered to know why your microwave goes by that name?  Since we never bother to understand the science behind the products and services we buy, they are often overpriced. 

You can now explain our trade deficit and why Africa is on the receiving end, exporting raw materials instead of value addition, which relies on science and technology. 

Covid-19 could help us turn the tide and pay more attention to STEM. Our policymakers from the president downwards are making matters better by surrounding themselves with scientists, insisting that their decisions during Covid-19 are based on professional advice. 

Raising the prestige of scientists and their way of thinking could be the silver lining in winning the war on the pandemic.

The output of scientific research should be sustained even after the virus is defeated. Scientific thinking should trickle down to all facets of society. 

With these new developments and the prestige scientists enjoy, I can disclose  I am a scientist too; I studied physics when I was younger and more innocent.

As to how I got into writing and economics, we can discuss that over a cup of tea after Covid-19 has been subdued.

- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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