“Africa’s sustainability problems can only be solved by science-based solutions, and effective communication must play a key role in this,” said Professor Mohamed Hassan of The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) in his opening lecture at the 2009 African Science Communication Conference. He added, however, that science communication can only be effective if there is enough science to communicate – a real issue in Africa. He provided some worrying statistics on just how far Africa lags behind in terms of producing new knowledge (as measure by ISI-listed scientific papers). The whole of Africa produces only 1.7% of the world’s new scientific knowledge, and most of this comes from only a few countries on the continent. South Korea, for example, contributes 1.6 times that of the whole African continent.
His five key recommendations for strengthening science communication in Africa are:
- Create at least one science centre in each African country to bring science closer to society. He pointed out that of the 2400 science centres worldwide only 23 are in Africa, and 17 of these are in South Africa. By contrast every UK citizen lives within 2 hours’ drive of a science centre.
- Establish an African centre for science policy and science communication to train a new generation of experts in science policy formulation and science communication; as well as to build the communication capacity of scientists.
- Create a science communication unit in each African science academy to support more effective communication strategies, engage the mass media and ensure that government policies on science related issues are based on the best available scientific evidence.
- Consider the formation of an African space agency to coordinate space research efforts on the continent, with leadership from Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa.
- Engage the general public in science in more innovative ways. Learn from the Brazilians who are including science when they enjoy music, art and even during carnival time!
Hassan also spoke about the challenges facing many science academies – mostly in terms of the age and gender of their members. While the academies themselves are widely recognised for their scientific excellence and independence, most members are older than 65 and only 5% are women. They communicate mostly with their members and far too little with decision makers and the general public. He also feels that some African science academies are too removed from the hard realities in many African societies (such as poverty, hunger, disease and malnutrition). He urged them to “wake up” to the needs of the broader societies that they should be serving.
Marina Joubert, SciDev.Net