Elizabeth Rasekoala on science and ownership

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Photo of Elizabeth Rasekoala
Credits: CREST

This interview with Dr. Elizabeth Rasekoala was conducted during the SciCOM 100 Conference in 2018, ‘Science Communication and Democratic South Africa: Prospects and Challenges’ (5-7 November) at Stellenbosch University. As the team of sureco-review, we were interested to learn more about African Gong and the Co-Founder and President, Dr. Rasekoala. African Gong is the Pan-African Network for the Popularization of Science & Technology and Science Communication.

Convinced that science and science communication are still predominantly white, male and euro-centric, Dr. Rasekoala continues to challenge the science engagement field to embrace, embed and systematise diversity, equity and social inclusion paradigms. Dr. Rasekoala with a professional background in Chemical Engineering and industry internationally, has championed, advocated, researched, presented and written widely on public innovation and transformative development through advancing diversity, socio-cultural inclusion and gender equality issues in science communication and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, skills and entrepreneurship development.

 

What were the main intentions when you started the organization African Gong: the Pan-African Network for the popularization of science & technology and science communication?

African Gong came out of my many years of experience of being involved in the international public communication of science and technology field. My involvement in the field started during the years when I was based in the UK from around 1994. I was in the chemical engineering industry, but was struck by some of the challenges of gender, race and social class inequalities—not just within the engineering profession, but within the wider society of the UK at the time. interestingly enough, this was also at the very early stages, where the public communication of science movement was really emerging in the global North, in Europe and North America.

The visioning at that time, we had hoped, was that these issues of diversity, equity and social inclusion would also grow with the movement over time. However, I have to be really honest that African Gong really came out of my disappointment and that of many others, that as the international science communication field/movement grew, it just seemed to carry on reinforcing a very Euro-centric and male hegemony. These issues somehow—once in a while they get discussed in conferences—in panel sessions, but are not really addressed as a mainstream drive, and are not really embedded into the consciousness of the movement.  You could be cynical and say that the movement seemed to be just about growing itself, growing the field—which is all well and good. But also even then growing the field very much within a global North perspective, that didn’t seem to be the same drive as to what growing the field in the contexts and realities of the global South, would deliver in a grounded sense.

There were exceptions, of course, and these were role models for us in African Gong. Our colleagues in Latin America have done a sterling job of really making the science communication field grow in their region and address some of those issues; and our colleagues in Asia as well. Frankly, the African continent is really the last kid on the block, and we started African Gong from the PCST conference that was held in 2014 in Salvador, in Bahia, in Brazil. That empowering global south scenario really was the energiser for us, because we were so motivated by the good practice and the networking of our Latin American colleagues, who really had got the field growing in their region, with the support of UNESCO.

There were also representatives from UNESCO who challenged us to take up the baton of leadership to drive the growth of the field in Africa, in saying: Africa is the only continent that doesn’t have a regionally representative network to bring to the global stage in this field. And so to people like myself and others, the few of us Africans who were there, and had been involved for many, many years in the field, this challenge was really like a call to arms!!, And we felt that we had no option but to put up or shut up!! It was also very daunting as we knew there was a lot of work and leadership involved,  but we realised that we really needed to bite the bullet and start our own pan-African network, African Gong, for the African continental representation and development of the field across our continent.

In your presentation at the Science communication conference in Stellenbosch you outlined an understanding of societal literacy. Is this connected to scientific literacy?

Yes, very much so. Societal literacy is connected to scientific literacy but it is within a wider context of societal transformation, and as we have been talking about in this conference, within the context of growing socially cohesive democratic African societies and civic citizenship, because we don’t just want to be pushing science for science sake. This is about being very ambitious to assert that the scientific enterprise should be delivering even greater returns on our investments from the scientific footprint on the African continent, especially given the pressing myriad developmental challenges that we face as a continent. We cannot afford the luxury of just doing science for the sake of some kind of esoteric prestige, or beauty contest!! It is far more important than that, and for us in Africa, this literately is about life and death!  Thus, for us in Africa, it is very important to locate the ambition for scientific literacy or societal literacy for science communication and the scientific enterprise, in this continent, within these larger multi-level development parameters and quality of life contexts.

Democracy is a key point in your concept. Could you elaborate more on the relationship between democracy and science communication?

As I said in my presentation, notwithstanding what is happening within the global scenario in this part of the 21st century, in terms of the growing dissonance of nationalism, populism,  fake news and post truth, these ruptures have been within the African continental space for very much of the postcolonial era. The drivers of these ruptures have been and continue to be, pretty much what we are now seeing in the global North – societal structural inequalities and globalisation that hasn’t delivered on its neo-liberal promises of prosperity for all. So we on the African continent know better than anybody else the real damage of lack of democratic governance. This has been a very pressing problem for us and the biggest disappointment for many African countries in the postcolonial era.

Unfortunately, we have become the continent of seemingly systematic poor governance nations. We have been the continent of military coups, the continent of dictators (for life!!), and the continent of one-party states. You name it!! And we are the continent of strong men, as I said yesterday – and yet, never of strong women!! You know, almost every other African country has got a strong man, and even when it is dressed up as democracy, if you want it to be benign, you could say that a democratic dictatorship is about the best, yet, that we get!! This has been a long-standing challenge for us in the postcolonial era and it is directly linked to the anti-democratic backlash of the failure of our postcolonial governments to deliver on the massive promises and hopes of the liberation movements that ended the colonial era on our continent. There has been so much euphoria and expectation! and yet so little has been delivered in terms of development!! That is a huge challenge! And this is where the enhanced foot-print of scientific and societal literacy on our continent can bear the most fruit, since, as I indicated in my presentation, ‘Ultimately, the ideal democracy is one in which voters are armed with the most objective information, so that they can make the most informed and most empowering choices for the greater good of society and for themselves.’

To link it back to the science question and to link it to the AU roadmap Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA) 2024: The governments you just described also signed this roadmap. Do you see any progress in that regard?

Credits: African Union

That is a very good question, because the history of African science, technology and innovation (STI) policy development and implementation—whether it is at national levels or sub-regional levels in terms of our regional economic communities (REC’s),  or at the continental level, is also a longstanding bedevilling one.

And at the risk of showing my age, I have to take you back to the 1980s when there was the Lagos plan of action. That was the first strategic continent-wide framework agreed to by African governments under the umbrella of the organisation of African unity (0AU), which is now the African Union (AU). So under the leadership of the organisation of African Unity in the 80s, all the African countries for the first time signed up to this continental science & technology development strategy. Critically, at the core of that continental framework was a strong commitment, not just to policy but also to the funding of R&D!! This was why in my presentation I was talking about one of our biggest challenges: It is not just about poor science policy landscapes on our continent, but also poor science funding regimes.

Thus, in the 1980s, in the Lagos plan of action—that was supposed to be the game changer, African governments signed up to a commitment of spending one percent (1%) of national GDP on R&D. We are sitting here in 2018 and it is absolutely heart rending to tell you that from the 1980s up till now, barely up to six African countries have yet met that one percent of GDP commitment to funding R&D on our continent. It is very shameful and demoralising indeed!!!

So we started with the Lagos plan of action, and then over the years the precursor to STISA 2024 was what they called the CPA (Consolidated Plan of Action)—again, a lot of commitments, a lot of strategic objectives. Some of those have been delivered, but the little that gets delivered—and this is where it is also frustrating—is always with international funding. African governments are still not putting their money where their mouth is, in terms of funding R&D, research and scientific development on this continent. And it then becomes very difficult for us to question some of the negative aspects in these collaborations with our international partners, when the painful reality is that without them, there wouldn’t be much scientific research happening on our continent!, because it is still so heavily predicated on international funding and international donors. This huge dependency on international funding for R&D on our continent is very profound and causes its own set of unfortunate unintended consequences.

That then leads very neatly to our last question: What is your vision of the future, where research collaboration is more equitable, fair and sustainable?

To be honest, and the reality is that—we are human beings. There are basic features of human nature, unfortunately, that are not going to change. There are no saints in this world!! There is no free lunch anywhere!! The only way that the dynamics of international research collaborations will change is when African governments equitably come to the table, and they also put money down. As long as the dominance, as long as the dominant partner, the funding partner in these collaborations is from the international community, those power, unequal power relationships, will continue to be the norm. These inequities of power and dominance will continue to undermine the goodwill, the supposed goodwill of these so-called international collaborations. These unequal power dynamics will continue to skew the research agendas, outcomes, etc., in favour of the international partners— after all, there is the saying: He who pays the piper calls the tune!

This constant complaint we get about the skewed nature and inappropriate focus of much of STI Research and Development in Africa, in  that it is skewed towards the agendas and the interests of international donors will also continue, because they are the ones who are bringing in most of the money. And it is wholly understandable that directly or indirectly they will be influencing the research agendas, the topics, the themes, the areas of focus, etc., to suit their own priorities! It is only human nature! And I know that is very hard and painful for many people on our African continent to live with, but we have to be grown-up about these things. This is the real world! there is no charity out there. Nobody gives you anything for nothing. You know, there is always a payback, and we really must stop being naïve. This is why I really place the blame fully, firmly and squarely on our African governments that are allowing this kind of unequal power dynamics and exploitation to happen, because we do have the funding – right here on our continent!! We just need our African governments to make the concerted funding commitments to R&D that will show that they take STI research and development on our continent, very seriously indeed, and are prepared to give it the budgetary priorities that it so well deserves!

But how do we make this happen?

The problem is three-fold. First of all: How do we get African governments to really take science, Technology & Innovation (STI) seriously and  to  then place it firmly at the heart of development and the transformation of  African societies and countries? That is the first thing that we are still struggling with in many African countries, 50, 60 years down the line, in the postcolonial era. That core belief, that strategic enrolment, is still not there in many of our African governments. So that is the first problem.

That then leads to the second problem: If you don’t believe in something, if you don’t see the efficacy, you are not wired into it. You are not going to set the policies into place that will make it an imperative. So we end up with very poor, patchy and uneven STI policy environments across our continent.

And this then ultimately leads to the third problem -that of the funding: If you don’t believe in it, if you don’t have the policies and the legislation for it, then you are not going to commit in a sustainable way, to the strategic funding regimes and budgets that you need to make that scientific endeavour and the research and its impact on societal development, happen in your country.  and so it is a ‘no brainer’ as to how we got to where we are in Africa and what needs to change. The challenge is: How do we actually get this mind-set change and the recognition and championing of science by African governments—at national levels, at the sub-regional levels, and at the continental level. There are a lot of warm words; there is STISA 2024 in place, but the real taste of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating!! The real evidence of the commitment to STI for development is when you actually put your money on the table and that is what is not happening across our continent!! And how long do we wait for change, transformation and socio-economic development on the African continent to be realised??

Thank you for this interview Dr. Rasekoala

 

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