Agent ZEE deployed in Africa

February 22, 2009

Zihle is am “ordinary” science student in South Africa. But when she gets wind of an exciting science story or challenge, she transforms into “Agent Zee” and investigates.

Robert Inglis of Jive Media, Agent Zee in the background

Robert Inglis of Jive Media, Agent Zee in the background

Zee is the lead character in a new series of science cartoons created by Jive Media in South Africa. Their latest product comes after a series of other cartoons – with different characters – developed to communicate topics such as biotechnology, astronomy and science in Antarctica to young readers.


“We have to tread really carefully not to scare our young readers away with the science in these storylines,” Robert Inglis of Jive Media told delegates at the 2009 African Science Communication Conference. “The idea is to create a compelling story so that they will read it without even thinking about learning science.”

Zee’s first great adventure deals with mass extinction events in the past and for this the Jive Media team collaborated with South African dinosaur expert, Dr Adam Yates from the University of the Witwatersrand.

They plan to do at least six cartoons in the first series, made possible by funding from South Africa’s Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA).

A scene from Mission MeerKAT 1

A scene from Mission MeerKAT 1

Jive Media also developed two comics called “Mission MeerKAT”, about children in the little rural town of Carnarvon in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, finding out more about plans to build a mega telescope just outside their town. Like many of their other cartoons, Mission MeerKAT was translated into the local language spoken by the majority of people in this rural community, in this case Afrikaans. The Mission MeerKAT cartoons (1 & 2) will be distributed to a gathering of the world’s top astronomers meeting in Cape Town on 25 February 2009 as an example of local science communication.


Zee’s adventures and most of their other stories are packaged in 8-page A4 comic books – a format that is easy to print and distribute. Once developed and paid for, these cartoons are available for anyone to download and use, and even translate into other languages.

Go to to access these cartoons.

Marina Joubert, SciDev.Net


Heard at the 2009 Science Communication Conference

February 20, 2009

Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan

Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan

“Women may naturally be better science communicators than men, since we are used to talking to people of different ages at different levels.” – Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

vanjaarsveld1“If they need a Professor of Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, we sure also need one in this part of the world.” – Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Acting President of South Africa’s National Research Foundation.



Mr Derek Hanekom, South Africa's Deputy Minister for Science and Technology

Mr Derek Hanekom, South Africa's Deputy Minister for Science and Technology

“Speaking in public about science can be a double-edged sword. Some scientists are good communicators and will inspire young people. But others may scare them away from science for good.” – Derek Hanekom, Deputy Minister for Science and Technology, South Africa







“Science journalism is incredibly important because it informs readers and listeners and viewers of the world around them, of life on Earth, of where we come from, and ultimately where we are going. And, it is never boring.” – Elsabé Brits, journalist at Die Burger, South Africa

Being scientifically illiterate can be life-threatening. For example when people pirate electricity or practice unsafe sex.” – David Kramer, Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa

“Science goes beyond inventing faster planes and better toothpaste – it is a tool to transform the attitudes of society, via Science Communication.” – Dr Chandra Nautiyal, India

“We need Science Communication to make a change in society – and is a tool, along with education, which [the ASCC2] can sharpen to improve the standard of living for the everyday person. People are using science in their everyday lives and simply don’t know it. We have to step up as science communicators and explain it in a way that can be understood.” – Surjit Singh, India

A local youth choir performed during the opening ceremony at the African Science Communication Conference, February 2009, Johannesburg

A local youth choir performed during the opening ceremony at the African Science Communication Conference, February 2009, Johannesburg


Marina Joubert, SciDev.Net

Delegates’ thoughts about the 2009 African Science Communication Conference

February 20, 2009

“This conference highlighted the importance of science communication, and how much we still have to grow this field in Africa.” – Prof Gervais Mbarga, Cameroon

“It has also helped clarify my ideas about the role of the African Science Journalism Association and the World Federation of Science Journalists and how much African participation we need in these associations.” – Christina Scott, SciDev.Net

“Africa still does not have enough science, and that which is being developed is not communicated effectively. Lots need to be done. Also, we should move the conference outside of South Africa into the African continent.” – Diran Onifade, Nigeria

“Demystification of science will help unleash the immense potential for creativity and innovation in young and aspiring scientists.” Collince Chisita, Zimbabwe

“The opportunity to engage and network and speak with other science communicators is invaluable.” – Greer van Zyl, Healthwrite

 “The conference has given me hope for the clearly growing rapport between scientists and the media.” Charmeela Bhagowat, South Africa

Gathered by the student reporting team of the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), the organisers of the event. Posted by Marina Joubert, SciDev.Net

African Dinosaurs

February 20, 2009

What a temptation. Dinosaur bone researcher Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan from South Africa’s University of Cape Town – the southern-most university on the continent – let slip that there will soon be another dinosaur named in South Africa’s isiXhosa language, commonly used in the region that the fossils were found.

The baby dinosaurs are listed in her book on Famous Dinosaurs of Africa as a mystery, but a peer-reviewed journal is soon to reveal all. Both dinosaurs and astronomy were listed at the conference as examples of cool science which can trigger all sorts of useful developments by triggering latent curiosity about the continent on which we live.

Christina Scott ,
Science and Development Network

Genes, jeans and hot sex

February 20, 2009

Nobody can talk to teenagers, because they know it all, already. Right?

But University of Cape Town dermatologist Dr Nonhlanhla Khumalo, the mother of 3 daughters (Vuyisiwe, Gugu and Nosipho) didn’t give up. She brought out a book on DNA, entitled Genes for Teens, which uses skin and hair to explain the ‘’science stuff, the teacher stuff’’ that would otherwise get rejected by these picky creatures.

And Dr Khumalo – whose day job includes examining the damaging effects of hair straightener – used the variety of jeans on the shelves to explain genetic diversity. Of course, sex came into the picture as well.

Turns out that one 70-year-old lady didn’t realise that it was men who were responsible for the sex of their children, and resolved no longer to blame daughters-in-law for the shortage of male grandchildren.

Hormone-driven male hair loss, acne, the torture of Afrocombs on hair that doesn’t want to be flat, and the lack of hair on your lips, soles of your feet and the palms of your hands all came into her talk. Red heads are a genetic mutation, like albinism. ‘’You see how wonderful genes are?’’ she asked.

She explored the interrelationship between ultraviolet sunlight, our body’s need for Vitamin D, calcium and melanin-rich skin pigment. ‘’If you move to colder areas, the darker you are, the less likely that you will survive and your children will survive.’’ Vitamin D rich livers from seals, she explained, was the reason why the darker-skinned Inuit survived the shortage of sunshine in the frozen north, without developing dangerous fragile bone diseases such as ricketts.

She also paid tribute to Zukile Vokwana for funding the first edition of her book.

Christina Scott, SciDev.Net

Zimbabwe and innovation

February 20, 2009

Zimbabweans have become masters of innovation, their creativity driven predominantly by external factors such as the world’s highest inflation rate, political turmoil and violence, diseases and shortages.

No ambulance? Bring the sick to the clinic in a donkey cart. No supplies? Cross the border, stock up, return, sell – and repeat the process. No free press? Circulate political jokes by cellphone text messages.

Collence Chisita, a deep-voiced lecturer in information sciences at Harare Polytechnic, says his institution is not being affected by powercuts, due to its location in the centre of the capital. Classes for the 3000 students started on time last month and he gets paid – unlike his primary and high school counterparts. Like many Zimbabweans, however, his family has been affected by the current cholera outbreak.

The 39-year-old spoke on innovation driven by technology, not desperation and the need to survive, at one of the last sessions at the conference, ably chaired by South Africa’s Anitha Ramsuran, a former unionist now with the Innovation Fund, a government-funded body which encourages the commercialisation of scientific discovery.

Collence shared the panelists’ polished wooden table with e-health researcher and Facebook fan Kedibone Aphane of South Africa’s health research powerhouse, the Medical Research Council, who spoke on a project combating the shortage of scientists by using real-life experts transferring web and media knowledge to students, and South African-born ‘’global citizen’’ Margeurite Maher, who spent years in New Zealand and is currently based in the education department at Australia’s Charles Darwin University, on tackling the severe shortage of maths and science skills among preschool teachers and student teachers by sharing curriculum-related e-portfolios online and forming a longterm community of learners in a successful pilot project.

He is technopreneurial. ‘’Technopreneurial skills might be setting up a laboratory science business,’’ Collence explained prior to his talk.

‘’The turbulent economic situation in Zimbabwe has adversely affected higher education institutions capacity to generate new knowledge but overall, such unusual situations demand unusual solutions,’’ he said during his presentation.

However, he was full of hope. ‘’When we view chaos from a dialectical context, chaos can be turned into a welcome interlude for technological innovations,’’ he told the audience.

‘’Institutions of higher education have taken the initiative to create conditions for technological innovations despite the economic hardships.’’

One programme takes college students to the distant rural areas, nearby informal settlements and even neighbouring countries such as Mozambique. There, they transfer technological skills in areas like welding and farming, in what is known as the integrated school outreach programme.

In another collaboration, efficient drip irrigation schemes are done to improve food productivity in areas of low rainfall, and is done by staff and students from departments of mechanical, civil and electrical engineering.

Rural coal-using bathing geyser, tobacco seed germinator and several other projects were listed in his presentation.

Collence’s mother tongue is Shona but he has a non-tribal outlook, counting friends and family among all the so-called tribal groups in Zimbabwe. We think he is a man of the world – and the future!

Christina Scott, SciDev.Net

Water, fish and aquatic biodiversity

February 20, 2009

Water: damn that dam, say the residents of a Ghanaian region, farmers who were removed to make way for a dam to supply water to residents of the country’s second-biggest town, Kumasi. According to Dr Tyhra Carolyn Kumasi of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, that was the message communicated loud and clear by the victims of the forced removals, who made way for water, but don’t have any running water for themselves, not even pit toilets.

Communication, she said, is a priority for people affected by largescale infrastructure projects, whether these are dams, train lines or roads. But it must include listening to the people affected, not just telling them when to move or else. And in her own work, she suggested to residents that they may want to argue for becoming shareholders of such projects, so they can have some benefit, a benefit which can last longer than cash payoffs.

Fish: Derek Fish, head of the University of Zululand science centre in the region of South Africa bordered by the Indian Ocean and the Mozambican border, is trying to do a master’s degree on the impact of science centres. Such an effort, he wryly noted, was on par with buttonholing audience members on their way home from a symphony concert and demanding to know if they’re suddenly motivated to take up the cello.

But The Fish (not to be mistaken for a wellknown local soccer hero with the same surname) saved some of his passion for the evidence that the classrooms in South Africa are dysfunctional. He showed the Trends In Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). There’s South Africa at the bottom, in the first year, beaten by Ghana and a host of other countries. There’s South Africa at the bottom, in the second year of the study, beaten by Morocco. There’s South Africa at the bottom for the third time, beaten by all and sundry. (Consistency is not always a virtue, it seems.) And then?

Silence. The South African government decided there was no point in participating in the survey until they got better results. Problem: they won’t know if they’re getting any better, because they’re boycotting the darn survey!

Aquatic biodiversity requires human diversity in order to be studied properly. So says Vanessa Rouhani of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, who says that their winter school is a life-changer. People who weren’t planning to do degrees find themselves in academia. Would-be academics enter tougher or previously unknown fields, like molecular biology. PhDs pop up behind people’s surnames.

Christina Scott, SciDev.Net

A plane drop is also a communication device!

February 20, 2009

Olufemi Bolarin, the lanky farmer and suit-and-tie-wearing agricultural lecturer from the University of Ilorin, situated smackdab in the middle of Nigeria, is very keen on promoting science through the media. Iliorin farmers grow it all: maize, yams, millet and other cereals, leafy greens, citrus fruit and palm trees.

But which media? There are, for example, 133 newspapers in Nigeria, the most populous of countries on this vast continent.

Dr Bolarin went through copies from 1996 to 2005 of four English-language national newspapers, Punch, Tribune, New Nigeria and Daily Time (the first two are privately-owned, the last two government-owned) to see how much coverage was of use to farmers. The 50-year-old from the university’s extension and rural development department didn’t use vernacular print media, local papers or electronic broadcasting such as radio or television.

There’s a certain amount of sympathy for anyone trying to conduct academic work in Nigeria, given the difficulties of the environment in which researchers operate. It really mucks up your ability to conduct a useful comparison when the military junta then running the nation closed down the private newspapers, doesn’t it? And we’re not even going to talk about the electricity failures and the water shortages…

This father-of-three (twin girls Fumibi and Funmilola, and a son, Syi, and teacher wife Joyce) personally was not impressed with the fact that about 60 per cent of the editions had no agricultural research reporting. Nor was he impressed with the type of agricultural research that was published, as much of it was “skewed” towards obediently reporting on policy announcements made by political bigwigs. Very little of the reporting, he said, was helpful to farmers trying to increase their food production.

But a rowdy question and answer session resulted, based to a large degree on his conclusions, was waiting for Bolarin and the session chairperson, fellow Nigerian and broadcaster Diran Onifade from the World Federation of Science Journalists.

Why was Bolarin’s conclusion controversial? The Nigerian government, he concluded, “should force all national newspapers to carry agricultural news in a column.”

That set off Christina Scott, Africa news editor of SciDev.Net, who is old enough to have been thrown into police cells in an effort by the then South African government to force her to carry ”approved” news.

She pointed out that once any government has the right to force media to carry particular material, “a dangerous precedent has been set, and government can force media to do just about anything.” She also pointed out that although Nigerian agricultural researchers publish frequently in peer-reviewed journals, they’re practically invisible on the internet and few journalists are able to contact them easily. And the snobbery of Nigerian researchers who ignore local reporters (but respond to queries from London) is a big problem if they’re claiming that their research is going to be of benefit to locals …locals they can’t be bothered to communicate with via local media!

She also pointed out the risks of simply assuming that newspapers are (and want to be, and are capable of being) an extension of agricultural extension officers. And noted that farmers may not be big users of newspapers. So the session concluded with a recommendation that agricultural departments might well want to consider sponsoring agricultural columns but that other techniques, ranging from phone-in radio shows to cellphone SMS communications, be considered as well. As Zimbabwean audience member Dr Taurai Imbayarwo of the South Africa-based Africa Science Trackers project pointed out, he used to read the agricultural leaflets for his illiterate granny in Masvingo: they weren’t delivered by post or hand. A plane drop is also a communication device!

Christina Scott, SciDev.Net

We are scientists, not activists (or should they be?)

February 20, 2009

“We are a sick nation,” Professor Anthony MBewu, head of South Africa’s Medical Research Council, told delegates at the African Science Communication Conference today. He went on to explain: “12% of us are living with HIV/Aids, we have one of the highest TB rates in the world and up to 50% of us are overweight or obese, thus likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

“So, the tax payer is not giving us money to produce scientific publications that will boost the CV’s of researchers; no, they want real outcomes that will make all of us healthier,” he added. “In this process, science communication is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it is critically important.”

His Council recently established a “research translation” unit to help researchers achieve desired impacts on policy, practice, products and public health promotion. MBewu said that the MRC is “new” to the field of science communication and that they would have to boost future investment in this area. “We work with life and death issues, and therefore we need to be very responsible and careful with our science communication,” he explained. “We don’t want to censor any communication by our scientists, but we have to be aware that people can die if information is miscommunicated or they misunderstand our health messages.” From infant health, nutrition and malaria prevention to safe sex and tobacco control, there are public science communication challenges in everything the MRC is trying to do.

Elsabe Brits, a science journalist at a large daily newspaper in South Africa, asked why the MRC was not doing more to raise awareness about the devastating health impacts of alcohol abuse in the country. “We need to improve our act on this,” MBewu agreed.

“Where was the MRC when our government’s AIDS policies made us the laughing stock of the world?” asked Derek Fish of the Unizul Science Centre in South Africa. MBewu admitted that “mistakes were made”, but went on to outline how a series of technical reports released by the MRC led directly to new treatments policies in the public health sector. “But we are not activists,” he believes. “It is not our job to lobby, but to communicate the best scientific advice.”

But, should scientists sometimes be activists?

This concluding thought from MBewu contrasted with a view expressed at a Wellcome Trust workshop on public science engagement that I attended in another part of South Africa in December 2008. A debate on “research and activism” concluded that academics have a major task and responsibility to tackle the government – and act as activists – when the government gets it wrong scientifically. “Scientists do, however, pay a price when they become activists,” Professor Wim Sturm of the Nelson Mandela Medical School said at the time. Go to for more thoughts on public engagement from this event.

Marina Joubert, SciDev.Net

Hassan’s recommendations for science communication in Africa

February 19, 2009

“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.

Professor Mohamed Hassan, Secretary General of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World

Professor Mohamed Hassan, Secretary General of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World

His five key recommendations for strengthening science communication in Africa are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Consider the formation of an African space agency to coordinate space research efforts on the continent, with leadership from Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa.
  5. 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

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