Kenyan scientists failing the country
Posted Sunday, January 18 2009 at 18:33
THE MAJOR ROLE OF SCIENTISTS in society is to search for workable solutions to everyday problems, and through research, to seek answers when nature startles.
A well-informed public translates into a strong democracy and a sustainable economy. Civilisation thrives on information and technology, hence the centrality of scientific innovations.
Kenya is today juggling with many new and complex scientific discoveries hitherto unknown to them, but which will greatly affect their lives.
Global warming is an intricate new phenomenon that will negatively affect developing countries; genetically modified organisms are being tossed our way as solution to food insecurity.
Many local scientists are involved in these and related researches and have written papers on them. Unfortunately, we only hear the echoes of their voices from prestigious Western science journals and TV documentaries.
The information vacuum left creates a battlefield for politicisation of crucial decisions and articulation of myths on emerging technologies, either delaying their updating, or hastening their adoption without enough prior facts.
This is what happened with the infamous Mathenge, and now with GMOs.
Our masked scientists are cocooned in laboratories churning out volumes of findings but neglecting the consumers of these discoveries. Their findings gather dust, or are archived in inaccessible library shelves.
Local institutions evaluate their success on citations and not on the multiplier effect of science as measured by the number of people who have successfully utilised the findings, which negates the very reason for their calling — to alleviate human suffering through research.
THE UNINFORMED FARMER IS REQUIRED to adapt to climate change and adopt the use of new technologies to increase production so that he can be at par with the rest of the world. He is compelled to make such decisions either by circumstances or by the authorities.
The greatest danger in such circumstances is the weak informational foundation upon which it is made, and the long-term effect of the decision made to generations to come. Many fish species have become extinct following the introduction of the Nile Perch into Lake Victoria decades ago.
Scientists need to make use of the mass media, through a good working relationship. Shortland and Gregory in their book, Communicating Science, argue that while the public and journalists want simple, direct and even tentative findings, scientists want to be authoritative on whatever information they divulge.
While it’s appreciable that science’s complex structure with its principles, definitions, approaches and processes entangled in its own lingo require time and commitment to master, its utility lies in the rate of transfer to the end-user through effective communication.
Most scientists are poor communicators, thus retarding the uptake of advancing technology. This problem is yet to find a solution in the science realm because many scientists are yet to accept that it is, indeed, a problem.
Dr Othieno is the communications manager of the Kenya Veterinary Association