Laureate: Don’t do science for the fame, do it for the fun

Young and upcoming African researchers should not pursue science to become famous, but for the fun of it and out of curiosity – and that might well also be the best way to advance their scientific careers.

This advice comes from no less a scientist than Dr Art McDonald, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics in 2015, in a Science for Society lecture he delivered at the University of Pretoria (UP), South Africa, in September on the topic ‘The Road to a Nobel Prize’.

McDonald said that, whatever scientific pursuits researchers engage in, their motivation and inspiration should remain fascination by science itself, followed by the need to find solutions to societal problems.

“We become Nobel laureates due to motivation by science, and you can do good science without being focused on the prize,” said the renowned scientist.

Giving his own example of coming from a small community town in Nova Scotia in Canada, the laureate observed that anybody, when given the right opportunity, could become a laureate, but cautioned that “it is nice to win a Nobel prize, but it is the science that matters”.

Equally important as curiosity-driven science is the need for the pursuit of basic sciences, defined as the scientific disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, because they provide “fundamental understanding of natural phenomena and the processes by which natural resources are transformed”.

‘Basic science’ of importance

The importance of basic science is evident even in developed countries where national laboratories are engaged in industry-geared science to provide answers to the immediate needs of the people, said McDonald, who was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with Japan’s Dr Takaaki Kajita.

As many as 75% of science students started out their studies with the goal of becoming university professors but ended up in industry. It was, therefore, important that institutions continued training and emphasising the sciences, said McDonald, who was propelled to fame after leading a research group at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada that investigated the metamorphosis of neutrinos, some of the smallest yet most abundant particles in the universe.

South Africa, he noted, had an opportunity to become a notable and more visible actor on the world’s science scene, thanks to its hosting of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the planet’s largest radio telescope under construction in the Karoo region of the country, which he hailed as “one of the largest scientific endeavours in history”.

“The SKA project will present an opportunity to the world to understand the galaxies better and provide an opportunity for South Africa to grow its science,” he noted, and added that Canadian scientists were keen to partner with their South African colleagues in sky observation under the astronomy project.

The African continent remains “a huge consumer of science products” despite its contributing the least to global knowledge output at only 2%, said Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, CEO of the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF).

He says this calls for increased and deliberate investment in scientific research to transform African economies into becoming knowledge-based economies if challenges such as poverty, inequality, disasters, and the high cost of living are to be confronted.

While the “interface between science and society” was needed more in Africa now than ever before, challenges for building knowledge-based economies were many, chief among them a return on investment in research, Nelwamondo noted.

He cautioned: “Science, no doubt, impacts our day-to-day lives, however the innovation and social benefits of it come only after long term investment in science”.

Appeal to funders: Please support science

Professor Heide Hackmann, Director of Future Africa and Strategic Adviser on Transdisciplinarity and Global Knowledge Networks at UP, said universities and other funders needed to continue supporting research, despite the many challenges that scientists faced, including the failure by many to “understand” their work.

“My appeal is to funders and universities to continue supporting science, even if they do not understand exactly what it is that we are doing.”

The world, Hackmann said, faced a myriad of sustainability challenges, some induced by climate change, but all of which could be tackled through a transdisciplinary approach to science. This, coupled with involving the society in “designing science”, would accelerate results.

Professor Tawana Kupe, vice-chancellor of UP, said people-centred collaborative science has the potential to enable “Nobel-quality research, needed for Nobel-quality solutions” for global challenges.

Kupe said the UP was transforming itself into a transdisciplinary institution by establishing five major platforms on this concept. These include a centre for the future of work and a centre for innovation in Africa. The aim was to transform research culture to face current and future challenges.

The university was in the process of transforming itself into a research-intensive institution through its Destination 2026 roadmap, Kupe said.

Chris Cooter, Canada’s High Commissioner to South Africa, said the NRF and Canada’s private sector funder for research Mitacs had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2021 to provide funding and training for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows from South Africa.

The MoU was also meant to help in the recruitment of high-calibre graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to carry out joint industrial internships and strengthen international research collaborations between South African and Canadian companies and universities, he added.

This was besides other initiatives such as Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) partnering with the NRF and the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation to establish the OR Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative, which is expected to enhance the African research landscape.

“The IDRC was also instrumental in funding and in helping to establish the Africa Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) based in Kigali, Rwanda [as well as South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and Tanzania]. AIMS seeks to attract top talent across Africa in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM),” Cooter noted.