15 November 2013

Can Science Solve all the Problems in the World? (For World Science Day for Peace and development)

Guest Writer: Richard Oduor
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In the 21st century, the word ‘science’ means ‘solutions’. The international Observance, World Science Day for Peace and Development, offers us a platform and a chance share our ideas for a better world and reiterate, once more, that science is the solution for all the world’s material problems. Over the centuries, science has transmuted from being a sacred discipline accessible only to a select few to become a way of life. Every single day, individuals, consciously or unconsciously, rely on established scientific principles to make individual, family, community, national, and global decisions. The world would never have achieved the current state of technological advancement without scientific thought. Science is the furnace where ideas are smelt, purified, and modelled into useful tools.
This is not a vacuous praise of science. Name any major problem confronting the world today. Ignorance, disease, illiteracy, climate change and global warming ... name them. All these problems will only be solved by science. If there is any problem in the world that is worth solving and which affects the entire population irrespective of race, creed, religion or gender – you can be sure that scientific solutions are what should be exploited. Ignorance far from being a question of choice is a consequence of poor dissemination of knowledge; a reconfiguration of such a system to enhance information flow is a partial solution. Diseases have been afflicting humanity since the dawn of time. Science has been the reason behind increasing life expectancy, reducing child mortality rates, reducing malaria or HIV/AIDS prevalence etc.

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Let us talk about some of these solutions in depth. Let us begin with climate change and global warming. Far from the controversy about its causes – anthropogenic or otherwise, the reality of climate change is with us in Africa. Over the past few years we have lived through changes in climatic patterns and not all these changes have been pleasant. We need to generate scientific solutions that range from reducing the use of fossil fuels to adapting to changing climatic systems. You can be sure that engineers are at the forefront in developing fuel efficient transport systems as well as how we can transform our offices to conserve energy. There are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of green technologies in the market. We need to be informed and adopt these tools and practices to reduce our carbon footprint. Mother earth sobs for our attention.

Our education systems are stale and have stopped doing what they were created to do. It is not strange to converse with graduates with annoyingly little information between their ears. Students are pursuing Masters Degrees not for the content that such a course offers but for the certificate so that they are well placed for the next promotion. You have PhD students who cannot conceptualize and create solutions for their own communities. This sleepy-head attitude towards intellectual advancement is a boil that has festered for far too long. It has begun seeping into our systems and before long all educated Africans will be unable to offer any solutions to the continent. Education reforms will have to align its objectives with the demands of a re-emerging Africa.
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Let us talk about diseases. Look at cancer which is currently one of the living causes of mortality today in the world. With increasing diagnosis of cancer cases, multimodal therapy remains the only reliable option in cancer treatment in addition to other treatments following surgical removal of cancerous cells. Owing to the limitations of the current cancer drugs, scientists are working on hundreds of other solutions including how biodegradable polymers can be used to enhance drug delivery. Adult stem cells have shown significant success in treating juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's disease. Hemopoietic stem cells hold promises in the treatments of autoimmune diseases, directing cancer therapy as well as generating tolerance physiological conditions for solid organ transplants. The current advancements in proteomics and gene therapy may eventually widen the scope of the clinical application of hematopoietic adult stem cell studies.

What about stem cell research? Just a few years ago, Mr. Steve Rigazio was a normal, happy young man operating his business with the enthusiasm and ambition so common among young successful entrepreneurs. Now he forms the statistics of people diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease; a devastating disease that affects the spinal cord nerve cells, causing muscles to wither and die off quickly. Just like everybody else diagnosed with this condition, the doctors gave him 18 months of life. Two years after diagnosis Steve is still alive and his doctors are baffled. No need to mention he quit his job and even though the disease is ravaging his body, his mind is intact. His vibrancy is a stark contrast to his gradual deterioration unto death.

Just in the same neighbourhood in which Steve lives are two beautiful girls; twelve years of age struggling with juvenile diabetes since they were barely four years old. With thousands of pricks on their skins, life is completely unbearable. Miles away is Anne; a twenty three year old young woman buoyed down with Alzheimer’s. Steve, Anne, the twins and millions more are suffering from these genetic degenerative diseases have been forced to watch their approaching deaths with utter hopelessness. Yet hidden in this hopelessness is the understanding that despite the moral, ethical and political undertones, stem cell research may offer these individuals the only remaining hope for a meaningful life. It is only through an appreciation of the scientific technique that diagnosis, treatment, and management of millions of diseases has recently improved. The consequence is that currently there are millions of pharmacologic agents under development and which will offer reprieve to millions.

Because of poor investments in scientific development in Africa, we have become importers of solutions than creators of them. African systems of thought are intellectually dominated. While the importation of ideas is not wrong, our little or non-participation in the generation of global knowledge makes it very difficult to efficiently integrate new technologies in our systems. We lag behind in the adoption of scientifically proven solutions to common problems in agriculture, industry, and health.
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Is there a solution? Are there ways in which Africans can increase the adoption of these techniques? Yes. There are many situations where technology has been used in disaster management and conflict resolution. Here in Kenya, Ushahidi developed disaster management Apps – a Ping app that works in both smartphones and feature phones and can be used to locate and respond to disasters. ICT adoption is changing fortunes in the continent. For example, Kenya has been touted as one of the leading countries in the world as far as the adoption of mobile commerce solutions, with a recent TNS Mobile Life survey showing that 73% of the 30 million mobile subscribers currently use their handsets to pay for products and services compared to just 15% worldwide. This is due to a large number of M-Pesa, Airtel Money, Orange Money and yuCash subscribers using their mobile phones in money transfer and banking services. These ICT developments are not only in Kenya but other countries as well, particularly South Africa and Nigeria where there are new developments and announcements happening on a daily basis.

Last month Lee Mwiti wrote an incisive article in the African Review. He asked: Is Africa’s breakneck growth all smoke and mirrors? This was in response to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative that seems to suggest that double-digit economic growth is commonplace around the continent, with six of the ten fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. The truth is that Africa is poised for take-off. This is not a pipe dream. I’m an African and I believe there are millions of young Africans like me who not only have great hopes for the continent but will be willing to exert themselves in realizing the African dream.

While part-dreaming, part-working towards achieving these dreams, it would be insincere to avoid touching on the role of politics development in Africa. Post-independent Africa has been a desert for travellers looking for successful political stories. The independence leaders squandered the chance to position the continent on a sustainable growth trajectory. There have been pockets of promising leadership that is rich in vision and commitment, but there are a few, if any, countries that have maintained a healthy platform for a long time. Political successions in Africa have not been savoury events. From coups, juntas, to stolen elections and broken promises for change have lived with African countries since they were hurriedly sculpted and injected with Westphalian attitudes. The political history of post-independence Africa is a weary wave with uneven troughs and crests.

One wishes that science could solve the world’s political problems; that politicians would rely on accurate analyses to make public policy decisions. But science plays second fiddle to politics because politicians are gods. The era when politicians could make personal sacrifices for the good of the society is gone; neither are they willing to defer current benefits for the longer term. Public policy is not being pursued for the long term welfare of the country. Kenyan and Nigerian Members of Parliament are examples of what happens when the pursuit of excesses and bulging bellies become a personal achievement, a national asset.

While politicians, even from the world’s greatest hegemony – the United States of America, routinely ignore scientific evidence when making policy decisions on such important issues such as healthcare, energy policy, climate change and global warming; we cannot resist the temptation to prod them. We need politicians to pass laws that increase funding to public research institutes. Whether it is HIV/AIDS, malaria, conflict resolution mechanisms, peace dialogue or democratization efforts – the lack of literacy of many politicians on these key challenges negatively influences their ability to debate intelligently and prioritize allocations of resources. Universities and other public research institutions continue to suffer from inadequate funding because they are placed at the bottom of the priority ladder.

In essence, there has never been a time in modern African history that the issue of leaders and the quality of leadership has been more important. The need for African leaders that have the competence to comprehend threats, the challenges, and opportunities of globalization, the imperatives of democratization and good governance, and the vision of a preferred future and capacity to realize it, is urgent. The African society at the present time awaits the emergence of a new generation of leaders who embody good governance as a cardinal value in every sphere of the society. Africa demands new leaders and a style of leadership that is competent, honest, visionary, and committed. Such a crop of leadership will appreciate the fact that science lies at the very core of growth and development.

In the same way, scientists also need to be flexible when conceptualizing solutions to global problems. Luckily, there is a new field of study around the block. It is called development engineering – a new interdisciplinary field of research that encompasses theoretical subjects as well as applied science. One of the objectives of this new strand of thinking is to tackle challenges that often block the delivery of more equitable development in a dynamic and interconnected world.

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Most of the complex challenges currently affecting Africa could be solved if researchers develop culturally sensitive models that not only re-emphasize established scientific techniques but create powerful combinations of skillsets that can engender the rise of new solutions to old problems. Having accessed a wide range of research studies across many disciplines, I can state with a high level of certainty that our main weakness lies in translating research data into practice. But this is not an African problem. Bridging the theory-practice gap is a global problem. However, interdisciplinary thinking, as an approach, is more likely to democratize science and align research with market needs and the real needs of the millions of populations in Africa that continue to suffer afflictions that have been eradicated in the developed world.
Richard Oduor  is a Biomedical Science & Technology graduate from Egerton University Kenya. He works and lives in Nairobi, Kenya. Richard is a multidisciplinary thinker and pursues threads from different disciplines in a bid to link them into one huge overarching framework of everything. He is also a poet and a budding short story writer/novelist. He runs a blog called The Grand Debate.

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