#ScienceAfrica Unconference 2014 – reaching the whole spectrum of society

It was with great pleasure that I ‘virtually’ attended the second Planet Earth Institute #ScienceAfrica Unconference on the 18th November. From following on Twitter it seemed like an excellent day with good discussions and presentations. Since last year’s Unconference I have moved to Mozambique. In 9 months I have seen extreme rural areas and big cities and experienced the lives of Mozambicans that live there. It is with this experience that I came to the second Unconference – with thoughts on some of the unique challenges that a campaign like #ScienceAfrica faces.

I wrote a blog on the first Unconference which you can find here. My main reflections on that day were about the possible divide between the drive for high level science (which I am interested in as a sort-of academic) and low level of basic education throughout much of rural parts of countries. I was invited to write a piece for PEI on aspects of school level education entitled “How do you communicate the benefit of applied science to people who still live hand to mouth?”. I suggested that there needs to be a culture shift in primary and secondary education to increase the value of science – by demonstrating examples of applied science and increasing the value of inquisitiveness. Also:

“It is clear that a failure in improving tertiary education, especially with respect to teacher training, will feed directly back to a failure in improving primary and secondary education.”

The topic was repeated in this year’s especially in a speech by Romain Murenzi:

Comments included:

Of course, Planet Earth Institute do work across the whole wealth spectrum – they are not focusing on high-level science to the exclusion of basic provision, but believe that high-level science is a very important component for the improvement of basic lifestyles, including school education. But it’s clear that this is something that needs to be considered in all #ScienceAfrica projects – how to achieve the high-level goals and still engage at the basic level, including school education. The message “Scientific Independence of Africa” isn’t simply making African universities competitive and independent of Western universities, but rather is a goal to enable African countries to use that scientific infrastructure to develop novel solutions for their own problems.

There are of course huge challenges, some of which I’ve seen in this last 9 months. On the one hand this year I’ve visited villages without electricity supplies, without a school for tens of kilometres and without a hospital for 30km. I’ve seen women fetch water from a dirty river an hour’s walk from their house because that’s their only water supply. In towns I’ve seen power cuts for a week, and kids going to school with chairs because if they want a seat, they provide it, kids returning from school 3 hours later because that’s it for the day. I’ve seen classes with no teachers at all because the teacher has other things to do.

I’ve also seen, in the same country, a high standard of university facilities, equipped labs, professors using social media to be in touch with the wider academic community via ResearchGate. I’ve seen the student vibe on campus, lists of classes in applied marine biology. I’ve mentored academics in three African countries via the AuthorAID programme and helped them publish in peer-reviewed journals.

Top: a village in Milange district, Mozambique Bottom: The Marine Biology Station on Inhaca Island run by Universidade Eduardo Mondlane Maputo
Top: a village in Milange district, Mozambique
Bottom: The Marine Biology Station on Inhaca Island run by Universidade Eduardo Mondlane Maputo


On the one hand you have places where the idea of “Scientific Independence” would be the last thing on peoples’ minds; in other places, they would be able and willing to lead the campaign. How do you engage and benefit the two sides?

A good test example comes from the Data Challenge section of the 2014 Unconference. Many people made the point of an obligation to share data and connect it to communities. That might be easy in a place like Maputo – just put it online and direct people to it. A challenge, but one with similar solutions to the Western world. But is that really achieving Scientific Independence of Africa, or is it achieving the Scientific Independence of Maputo? What about the Scientific Independence of Mabuara? Or Cobue? Or Sabelua? To really reach the goal, these people need to be included in our ideas too.

This is where the high tech world meets the low tech, but I believe with a little creativity, the Scientific Independence can reach them too.

Recently a colleague showed me a text message he received from a friend about the Ebola outbreak. It was obviously a circular – disseminating information via people and their mobile phones. The message was completely wrong – Ebola is spread by drinking bottled water – but the method was not. Could adopting that method help Scientific Independence? Could sms be a way of connecting people in rural communities with those in the universities in the capital cities?

What about radio? In Malawi the radio is used for public service broadcasts, promoting health messages and giving advice. Could radio be a method for high level projects to reach out to the general public? Would it be possible for a university professor to have a radio show that talks about science going on in African universities? After all, like Eunace Ball said on Twitter:

These are just two suggestions of many low tech methods that can be embraced by #ScienceAfrica projects so that they can engage the whole spectrum of society, to engage the general public and improve education. With the right message and right technology, big data could travel a big distance. The #ScienceAfrica campaign has the opportunity to advance a new holistic and collaborative approach to science, embracing open access journals and open source softwares, embracing science communication as a priority for researchers, embracing simple and available technologies to reach goals, and impacting all parts of society.

Note (added in 2020) The Planet Earth Institute has closed due to allegations against the CEO and board members. I was only invited to write a blog for them in the early days. I stand by what I wrote, but obviously disown the corrupt actions of the leadership of which I (and I imagine many of the staff I communicated with by email or at the Unconferences) was not aware.


One response to “#ScienceAfrica Unconference 2014 – reaching the whole spectrum of society”

  1. Interesting. What about someone who goes around with a megaphone like we heard in Cobue? I also had an SMS sponsored by the mobile network here telling me to take any children for annual vaccinations on a certain date. How you then turn the science into a level accessible by all who will hear the message is the next question!

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