Join war against those who discredit science – Symposium

The African scientific community has to be part of global efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation against science that is threatening future progress that the world can make through scientific research breakthroughs.

The ‘misinformation war’ against science has gained momentum globally in the recent past, putting at peril social economic development that Africa badly needs in order to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of development.

Despite demonstration that the power of science is critical in confronting global challenges as exemplified during the recent outbreak of COVID-19, the war against it was raging in many parts of the world, which called for spirited efforts to address the negativity, said Vidar Helgesen, executive director of the Nobel Foundation, at the first event in the Nobel in Africa Symposia Series hosted by the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).

The world, more than ever before, needed an accelerated uptake of scientific knowledge to provide solutions to emerging problems that, besides disease outbreaks, include climate change, among others, he noted.

“We are telling young people that it is possible to change the world. The Nobel Prizes have demonstrated that it is within human power to effect change,” he said at the launch of the symposia series.

The prizes, in different fields of science, arts and culture, were awarded to a “global community of change-makers”, people who have “awarded the greatest benefit to humanity” through their work, he added.

There was a “shortage of hope and inspiration” around the world at the moment, Helgesen said, noting that this called for more Nobel laureates in various fields including from Africa, the continent with the least number of the world’s greats.

“The world now, more than ever before, needs renewed efforts to make breakthroughs in science, culture and peace to provide solutions to emerging and different challenges faced by humanity today,” Helgesen told attendees.

A shift in focus?

According to the Science for Africa Foundation senior manager, Judith Omumbo, directing more focus on science, technology and innovation (STI) with a bias on health, food security and livelihoods, and on the climate change and environment, will set Africa on the path to addressing its most pressing challenges and improving the lives of its people.

The Nairobi-based foundation was focused on increasing scientific productivity in Africa while supporting increased participation of women in science, besides building the capacity for research management, she explained.

Even as Africa continues to rely on the developed world for support in building its scientific capacity, South-South collaborations should be encouraged to help countries learn from each other.

The foundation was keen on supporting Africa’s “innovation space” through a variety of research grants aimed at building the capacity for early career scientists in basic and applied research.

One of the programmes the nascent foundation was implementing is the Science Policy Engagement Africa Research, or SPEAR, meant to address gaps in research.

It was also undertaking a corporate science communication programme, meant to address the “dearth of science information” in Africa, she said.

“This is a huge area for growth. A lot of our young people are reading information about football and other sports happening abroad, but nothing about science. We would like to have them read more about science,” Omumbo added.

An intellectual investment that makes sense

With Africa’s population experiencing the highest growth rate in the world and with the continent’s population expected to double by 2050, increasing “intellectual investment made a lot of sense”, said Professor Wim de Villiers, vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University.

Despite recent challenges associated with “wrong student behaviour”, the university, he said, was committed to advancing the quest for knowledge as the core of its mandate, and it continued to view science as a service to society. It will, therefore, spare no efforts in its determination to continue doing “impactful” science, he said.

“The STIAS institute is committed to taking science to wider audiences in South Africa, to the continent and beyond,” he added.

Ahead of the Nobel in Africa Chemistry meeting in October 2023, the committee responsible was planning to set up a young researchers’ programme that will link young Africans with their young counterparts in France, said committee member Professor Fredrik Almqvist.

“While details are being worked out, the network will be an outreach programme similar to this year’s physics meeting and we have also discussed setting up a young researcher programme connecting young Swedish researchers and young researchers from Africa,” the professor of organic chemistry told University World News.

The Nobel in Africa is an initiative of STIAS under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It is funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.