The dilemma of promoting Science and technology in Uganda

At the beginning of the year 2020, ‘The Observer’ published a story that pointed to the collapse of the science dream as an outcome of released poor O’Level science results. Assessments such as exams provide indicators of the progress we have made in advancing the knowledge of science and technology. The country is still resolute with the idea of promoting science as one of the priority development agendas and I think it is a good initiative even when I am convinced that diversity of abilities supersedes. Today, western museums are battling the idea of repatriating African artifacts placed in their museums. These artifacts have collected millions of dollars for European museums and many scholars have attained doctorates studying these thousands of unique pieces of art, a statement attributed to a French Arts repatriation activist. BBC recently featured a kid piano maestro at 6years of age. Uganda has produced international athletes we are all proud of. The point is, all abilities can spur a nation to greatness if identified and developed aptly. Long ago, African education was hinged on the skills the parents excelled in. The blacksmith, creative artists, traditional-doctor, poet, clothing maker, musician, village administrators all educated their children in a vocation they practiced and understood. This learning strategy had both highlights and challenges but not void of promoting what is obtainable within the society.

The leadership in Uganda has a conviction to promote science and technology which idea we should applaud. However, the conviction seems to emanate from the assumption that we do not have scientists and the reason is that they are not motivated. I have come across people who studied science-related subjects and feel they are better off practicing other vocations with a lesser profile just because it is their passion. For long, our society has appreciated studying a science-related subject,s and parents are fulfilled when their children graduate as a doctor, engineer, programmer, pilot among others. We can also agree that there is an influx of students wanting to join medical, engineering, technology, and other science-related schools but notably, entry is to a larger extent determined by how many “A”s one acquired in specific examined subjects and less of natural abilities. The Uganda Science Education Policy dictates that science subjects are compulsory throughout lower secondary (O’Level) and government sponsorship is up to 70% tagged to sciences. Haven’t we done yet enough for science to produce something tangible?

Who are scientists? A definition by Indeed Career Guide which is corroborated with one from Science Council-UK (Royal Charter) defines a scientist as a professional who conducts and gathers research to further the knowledge in a particular area. Scientists may make hypotheses, test them through various means such as statistics and data, and formulate conclusions based on the evidence. There are several types of scientists and nearly every industry requires the knowledge and research performed by these professionals (Sic).

Concerning the definition, how many scientists do we have and facilitated by the government of Uganda to carry out their professional research? It is important at this point to understand the difference between scientists and science practitioners. Most of the time it is hard to promote what you do not have or understand. Some civil society advocates have argued that if there is any science or industrialization Uganda needs to promote, it should be agriculture-related. They are right and possibly they are convinced that this is the area we understand and have control but again if you are a convert of diverse abilities you could agree less. How about if Uganda wanted to promote, organic chemistry, crypto-analysis, DNA research, electric car battery engineering, Quantum physics, nuclear science, space technology, medicine and vaccine research, and data science among others? Do we have these scientists and why not profile them? By the way, data science a popular subject in the 21st century is built on the knowledge of psychology, a science subject somewhat despised in Africa but one that has made Facebook and Alphabet popular and financially sound entities. So far, in the direction of promoting science and technology, the salaries of persons in these related fields have been echoed to improve. At this point, I am conflicted about what Uganda is attempting to promote between science and scientists, either way, salary improvement is not a byproduct. Scientists have entitlement to a fair payout for their dedicated work as a remuneration requirement and not a promotional package. The salary-promotion approach may not differ from what has attracted a sizeable population wishing to have a political office such as a Member of Parliament where the focus is the power and money in packages and not the functions of legislation.  

In my opinion, there are two key areas where science and/or scientists can be promoted. Scientists are by default researchers who are involved in studying and recommending new knowledge and methods of doing or understanding things. Research is the lifeline of scientists and facilitating research is the means of promoting science and scientists. In Africa, governments do not seem interested in promoting science and scientists, and evidently, we present nothing threatening on the market of research and development and we hardly feature in the science category nominations for a Nobel Prize. If we do have active scientists in the country/continent, why don’t we have an annual motivation prize where the extraordinary work of these scientists is awarded recognition! Typical of Africa, we get to learn about these people when their achievements are included in the obituary message. The problem is not necessarily a lack of funding for science and/or scientists but rather our priority list always looks politically full and that is why even good intention lack honest support. Again the challenge is not what we do not know or have but rather what we are not doing. The COVID19 vaccine success team at Pfizer COVID19 has an African among the top scientists, evidence that we have the knowledge. The Indigenous and Complementary Medicine bill has been in the Uganda parliament process for a long period and by this date, it is not yet consented by the authority, evidence that we lack the will. 

The second line of focus to promote science is starting with young learners as a preparatory ground. Our forerunners, the ones advanced in research and innovation have programs dedicated to promoting and motivating science among children. If you watched the Da Vinci broadcast and the likes, you get a feeling that the programs are targeting specific age brackets where great scientists are profiled and their achievements linked to the present innovations. I recently watched a kid’s competition on another station where a 12-year-old kid picked his area of knowledge to be organic chemistry a subject her mother was studying for a Ph.D. and he was proficient with the subject. Identifying and developing talented children while influencing other gifted kids is critical to promoting science. Adopting programs such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in primary and secondary teaching and learning is the means of achieving the goal.  Persons gifted and empowered to take science subjects will always do so because they are attached and empowered and not because they are influenced by non-related causes. The law degree is today the catch for many students who are convinced they should study law and end up in parliament and not in court. Equally the present motivation for many children attracted to science is primarily the desire to become someone valuable in society. This is common among all learners but the affluent kids with the potential to easily access science subject-related facilitation often have an upper hand in pursuing a science subject ending up as suitable candidates to qualify for a government scholarship. This is not because they present the best abilities to study a science subject but because they are facilitated well to pass the required exam. We have this far promoted a misconstrued concept which predominantly presents the financially suitable and ambitious students empowered to produce triple (AAAs) but less attached or even attracted to pursuing scholarly science beyond graduation. When learners are attached to science but not empowered we lose them and end up with those empowered but not attached.    

By Moses M. Mwebaze

Edutech Specialist/Team Leader at Kavedin

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One comment

  1. Interesting article. It is unfortunate that the teachers teaching children at primary and secondary levels are teaching old material that is the same old content every year. The teachers are not providing new content that inspires or enhances research in children. Without nurturing children from the lower class into research a country can’t have healthy scientists.

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