S & T Critiques

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What do you think? – Global S&T Critiques

Nobel laureate slams Third World bureaucracy

An Egyptian-born scientist who trained in the United States and later won the Nobel Prize for chemistry has warned that excessive bureaucracy is stifling the growth of science in many developing countries.

The warning has come from Ahmed Zewail, Professor of physics at the Californian Institute of Technology, who won the Nobel Prize in 1999 for his work on the use of ultra-fast lasers to study the internal dynamics of atoms.

In an address to members of the Third World Academy of Sciences, meeting in New Delhi, India, India, Zewail said that it was time for developing countries to put their own house in order if they wanted to reap the benefits that modern science and technology have to offer.

The developed world could help in many ways, for example, by providing extra resources to support science through its aid programmes. But we cannot simply wait and blame the developed world for everything,said Zewail.

One important need, he said, is to develop a much more critical approach to science education. The way that science is currently taught in many developing countries is not good enough in the world of today, and a major thinking of science education is required in many parts of the world.

For example, being required to absorb large amounts of information from books is not the way to the future said Zewail. Science education needs to be hands on, and the task of teachers is to open the minds of young people, not just to fill them with facts.

Another major barrier to the development of science in many parts of the developing world are the limitations currently imposed on the effective use of human resources. There are tremendous resources in many parts of the world, as I have myself seen in countries such as China, India and Egypt,Zewail said it is a question of making the best possible use of such resources.

One way of achieving this is to ensure the implementation of systems of production based on merit. I am very disturbed when I go to many parts of the developing world and find promotion systems still based primarily on age and seniority, said Zewail, contrasting this to the environment in the United States in which he had flourished.

Bureaucracy was another, related, problem. Everything is centralized; everything needs approval. If there is one thing that I have witnessed in many of my travels in developing countries, it has been the enormous bureaucracy.

There were murmurs of approval in the audience when Zewail added: You know many signatures you need to attend a conference outside your own country.” The question of excessive bureaucracy was, he said, very serious “ if we want to do something about it, we have to be very frank”.
..Excerpt from www.scidev.br

Effective Science Demands Effective Democracy

X11th Annual General Arnoldo K. Ventura
Meeting of the Caribbean Special Science &
Academy of Sciences Technology Advisor to the
U.W.I., Mona Hon. Prime Minister
June 2002 Kingston, Jamaica


It is of great importance that the general public be given an opportunity to experience “ consciously and intelligently “ the efforts and results of scientific research. It is not sufficient that each result be taken up, elaborated and applied by a few specialists in the field. Restricting the body of knowledge to a small group, deadens the philosophical spirit of a people and leaders to spiritual poverty. So said Albert Einstein. These sentiments are as germane today as when they were spoken in 1948.

Permit me also to regale you with another quote One result of the present hierarchical structure is that it is mainly older scientists who determine the distribution of resources; both between different fields and between different approaches within a given field. As a result, funding decisions often reflect academic politics rather than objective and open-minded evaluations of scientific merit. This was written by Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, just two months ago.

These two opinions on the behaviour and work of scientists within science, and between science and society, are fundamental to the meaningful pursuance, some would say the revival, of science as a respected force in human affairs. They both speak to the value of full participation and democracy in the utility of science in the socio-economic development process. The state of the world affairs with run away environmental decay and deepening poverty, now more than ever, require the correcting foresight and knowledge which science can engender: a wisdom which will help right a faulty economic model and help capture the unqualified support of the global majority. Unfortunately, at present, science seems to be at the beck and call of the rich and powerful, and is yet to function as a tool to regenerate hope in all the recesses of mankind.

Scientists have many credible reproaches to answer, as they deserve the commendation of mankind. The balance in this equation seemed recently to have shifted to such an extent that scientists are forced to make reparations for the misuse of scientific results and for the genuine mistakes fomented by the arrogance of haste and greed. This is, quite ironic, because at a time when science is contributing so much to the world™s knowledge pool, it is under siege from its very beneficiaries.

Science in Retreat

Many questions regarding the social obligations of scientists have slipped from the world™s agenda because of corporate influence, neglect by scientific leaders and administrators, and consequent weak appreciation by young scientists of the nature and extent consequent possible and resolutions of these problems. Questions such as the public™s right to know concerning the lasting effects of scientific innovations, the lopsided shift of science from public to private benefit, the scientific gap between the rich and the poor, and how science should be used to address problems collectively faced by humanity, attract answers only in the confusion of crisis. Young Scientists are not engaged sufficiently with these matters largely because scientific elders and tutors themselves are otherwise occupied and react only after public outcries reach a crescendo.

The situation has now reached a destabilising state that some now speak of the need for an international code of conduct for scientists. This may well set the stage for guiding principles, but for these principles to have meaningful impact, they must be practised within science as much as they are conceptualised to present the best face to the public of scientific endeavours. Furthermore, I submit that for science to recapture respect, it must address the greatest bane of our time, which is poverty. Any code without this responsibility is almost meaningless. To address such issues, science must respond to the growing demand for transparency, relevance and equity.

More Democracy in the Halls of Science
A paradox now faces Universities. They are the generators of the knowledge which underpins the democratic process, yet they are often undemocratic in their internal governance. This is especially so in science. Many young Jamaicans scientists will vehemently attest to this fact. It is a reality that young minds are more creative than older ones, and, also, more adventurous and fertile. In today™s world these attributes are required to solve many of the trenchant problems of society. Despite this, power in scientific communities rests almost exclusively in the purview of senior scientists, many of whom cling closely to the status quo. A legitimate question is, does this retard the creative knowledge building processes in poor societies? Could this be the reason why science seems not to be as useful as it should be in developing countries?

There is no doubt that training of young scientists in the art of scientific reasoning and the principles of meticulous research must come from the experience and depth of knowledge residing in the older heads. But this should not inhibit the young from energetically and without unhesitatingly, applying these tools in innovative ways that bring them in closer touch with their societies. The older experienced scientists clearly should be the stimulators, the facilitators and the evaluators, but young minds should be given free reign to suggest, explore and take risks and thereby, reap the rewards of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurships.

Quality and originality must be fully awarded and less emphasis placed on the likes and dislikes of professors. To work largely on what is fashionable, or politically correct, is stultifying the growth of fresh knowledge and the testing of insightful and relevant questions to add to this knowledge. Scientists with the most courage and foresight, and therefore more inclined to break into new areas of exciting work, unfortunately, often have the least power when it comes to resource allocations and decisions. Clearly, ways have to be fashioned to rectify this democratic imbalance in the citadels of science.

Modern universities evolved from schools of theology and were designed to perpetuate old knowledge based on immutable embrace of religious dogma. This begs the question as to whether this is the best organisational model for science, especially in countries with weak knowledge infrastructures. Even conservative businesses and manufacturing enterprises now see the merits of having flatter organisational and management structures, to allow more space and freedom for innovation by a greater number of operatives. Why is it then that the very home of new knowledge cling to the old system? Could it be one of the reasons why entrepreneurship is weak among scientists and there is a void between formal knowledge and enterprises? Could it be that the current system rewards obedience to the status quo and not the spirit of innovation? Perhaps more heed should be paid in the saying that risk without knowledge is dangerous, and knowledge without risk is utopian.

Science as a Cohesive Democratic Force
The cohesiveness of societies during the last millennium was largely provided by religion, tribal loyalty, patriotism, old wisdom of elders and dominant philosophies. However globalization has eroded many of these cultural bonds and several countries today find themselves disoriented and lacking in common visions and goals. As a consequence, progressively, science is becoming a factor which provides a common knowledge base to rally citizens and help them find a rational purpose. Although man has not yet reached enough intellectual maturity and reason to ultimately control all of the outcomes of his activities, science has given him great influences over what happens to his planet. Unfortunately, in many developing countries the little science there is, serves only the elite, while the rest of the society depends on old folk ideas, traditional wisdom and superstition. A distinct intellectual gap can now be seen between the poor and non-poor segment of societies.

While science has allowed more humans to survive, many are unable to meet their basic needs, and some become severe burdens on their society and ultimately the rest of humanity. This is so despite the fact that there is enough scientific knowledge and technologies to provide a decent life for all. In actual fact science has permitted an affluent few to destroy their environment by over consumption, while many place great stresses on their environment because they have to scrounge on the little they have to survive. In a sense, science has given too much power to a few, while it has neglected the demands of the many.

It is therefore clear that to ensure sustainable development, scientific efforts must be more democratically determined and ensuing results equally distributed. This from past experience will not happen, unless those presently scientifically disenfranchised are brought into the center of decision-making. Strong ties between scientists and the public will reduce the tendency for science to serve mainly the prerogatives of powerful interests and big businesses and the likelihood of the misuse and abuse of emerging technologies.

Science depends on the principles of freedom of expression and exploration, which are also the governing tenets of democracy. So although science is presently elitist, it should not be too difficult to make science and civil democracy mutually reinforcing. Today democracy is largely identified with majority rule and this alone has not sufficiently served the interests of the common man in poor societies. Democracy therefore has to mature to a state where more have the capacity to ensure their own enhanced quality of life, which revolves around technological and pertinent knowledge access. These privileges must be accepted as equal correlates of the satisfactory practice of both science and democracy. Without this, neither science nor democracy will be perceived as beneficial factors to the poor and neglected, and attacks on both institutions will grow.

Science has provided a range of information and communication technologies which has already begun to enlighten the expectations of those at the lower echelons of society. With new policies, institutional arrangements and the engagement of those who are to be served, more effective e-governance can be installed, giving civic society, at all levels, opportunities to acquire necessary information and to influence decisions which affect their lives. Well-placed technologies can therefore act as countervailing forces to the power and privilege of favoured minorities and the science and knowledge gap will be significantly reduced.

Although science does not need public democracy to work effectively, and is indeed itself autocratic in its ideals of excellence, its fullest expressions in human development will come when all are free to think, act and innovate. Informed democratic participation is impossible without confident scientific thinking and balanced technological assessments throughout societies. Civic society must therefore become willing partners with science for the attainment of the success of both entities.