I thought I’d have you listen in on this IM conversation I had with a friend from medical school, Simon Adebola, about science, science illiteracy and biomedical science in Nigeria/Africa. Simon blogs at iInitiative.
Simon Adebola: So tell me, what is new in the nebulous world of cells transmitters and neurobiology?
Seye Abimbola: Nebulous world?
Simon Adebola: Just teasing. But wait, let’s see how well you can guard your territory. Imagine I thought it was nebulous and even went a bit further to say that science could be tricky and the analysis dodgy.
Seye Abimbola: …and you’d be perfectly right. That is indeed the true nature of science and the bravado and hubris of science in its more modern history is a loss and the way science has fed public imagination with promises of its powers is also unfortunate… That said, it is still the only way we know by which we can grasp the mysteries of the natural world, hence the need for constant doubt and skepticism, from the makers and the consumers of science alike.
Simon Adebola: Wait a minute, you remind me of this Oxford Prof Jerome Ravetz. He wrote on post normal science, citing much of what you just stated above. It could be that much of what we call hard facts, especially in modern science is not as factual as we tend to want to make our journal editors, peers and larger public believe.
Seye Abimbola: Journal editors and peers are often conniving partners in the business… and unfortunately, the scientifically illiterate public and newspaper editors just take it in, and spread it… and it backfires some times, with the recent example of Climate Science. Climate science had an agenda and I am suspicious of any science with an agenda and unfortunately that is what much of science is today.
Simon Adebola: Well, all writing, I was taught, has an agenda, and that virtually spoilt films and entertainment for me because I then acquired a magnifying lens and sometimes it descends much lowers to an agenda for money. Science like religion has proven not to sit comfortably with the kind of scrutiny it has gotten. They both would rather prefer to be seen as being infallible and yet no enterprise with humans at the helm should be seen as such.
Seye Abimbola: It is troubling how money and agenda drives a lot of research, including medical research and how unfortunately no one beyond the club is even able to really scrutinize. When I was at the BMJ (British Medical Journal) I had a different impression of how science worked. There was the image of science in its most perfect, ideal sense, and although it showed that there was a lot of crap science and studies going on, it didn’t quite ring home that it was a given in “the holy of holies of intellectual objectivity” (Wole Soyinka).
Simon Adebola: Being a strong believer in objectivity and experimentation (I find it truly fascinating) I wonder what the scientific community can do to regain its credibility.
Seye Abimbola: I don’t think it will happen unless we redefine our index of academic credit and the way science is funded – number of papers in peer reviewed journals is a bad idea and funding according to result – often number of papers or positive result – is killing science. It forces scientists to want to say something, when there isn’t anything to say, creates publication bias, unnecessary data analysis et cetera.
Simon Adebola: Sometimes it is like the case of a serially abused individual. Concurrently ignored and used by those they hoped would care about them – politicians and to a lesser extent industry. Over at Cuba (Forum 2009, Global Forum for Health Research) there was this palpable inferiority complex in the research community, a complex not devoid of pride, seemingly crying to be heard by policy makers. As they say in Yoruba, it is a thief who knows how to trace the footprints of another thief on a rock. Once the politicians/policy people see through the credibility flaws, they just would rather use, rather than trust the research community. What would you recommend to improve the assimilation of science into policy?
Seye Abimbola: There’s a lot that is wrong about how science is presently done and how it feeds into policy. I’ve been thinking a lot about policy these days…Ultimately what we need to do is improve scientific literacy. I wouldn’t mind suggesting a model that has scientists, not necessarily practicing, as policy makers in science/medicine…
Simon Adebola: …building a bridge sort of.
Seye Abimbola: Yes, because it’s so easy for scientists to stand on the other end of the divide and send in dumbed down, over-edited, information that lack the nuances, and the element of doubt that comes with science…I’m not happy about the example of Al Gore who has been the most public face for climate change for a long time…It would be a different scenario entirely if he is re-echoing what scientists in the field are saying to the public. However, scientists in the field are the ones trying to re-echo what he is saying by making their data agree.
Simon Adebola: No one is comfortable with the ‘everything is caused by climate change’ line. It gets rancid after a while, with science making the claim on both sides. Ten years ago, science predicted that due to climate change some parts of the world experience drops in snow, for example I heard they said British children would not know what snow was. Now science is proving to us that due to climate change, there would be fiercer snow storms. That breeds the reaction you get when you discover the movie you are watching does not have a plot you want to turn it off, but again you want to see if its plotlessness, is the ingenuity of the director in display, so you hang on watching, hoping it would eventually make sense, somehow.
Seye Abimbola: Again, this is because scientists are not committed to saying the truth the way it is…
Simon Adebola: …and that is the context in which post normal science explores its stance. “Post-Normal Science is a concept developed by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, attempting to characterise a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. It is primarily seen in the context of the debate over global warming and other similar, long-term issues where we possess less information than we would like.” (Wikipedia)
Seye Abimbola: …and again it boils down to scientists feeling a need for that sort of misplaced recognition…
Simon Adebola: …true, opening them up to near destructive abuse. I guess each side just has to make peace with its roles. Oxford would never be Hollywood, or Washington DC, or the Super bowl. Hollywood with its fortune, sports with its fame, and Washington with its power wielding capabilities. The strength of science like you have said would continue to lie in its innovativeness and simplicity once other interests start driving it, that inferiority complex bites in, and self destruction could result. For now we observe the movie, hoping there is a plot. Those profiting off this, increase the hype, the noise, silence the naysayers and hope to bank as much as they can, such that win or lose, at least they have made enough to reward their efforts.
Seye Abimbola: I’m wondering what is there for science in Nigeria… There’s a lot that never happened, despite enormous early promise in Nigeria.
Simon Adebola: There is hope. New minds, fresh minds, need to be trained, we need a reorientation. Science as you know has flourished even when repressed. Galileo, Einstein. It is the commitment that we should hope does not dwindle. The value is in service that would drive a pursuit of excellence, creativity, and better ways of doing things…
Seye Abimbola: In medicine, if we look back to the days of Osuntokun et cetera, they somehow did not, and I suspect due to a lot happening on the political front in Nigeria, manage to build that critical mass that could help sustain scientific productivity. Those guys did and published a lot of great work, good, world class studies and it just didn’t trickle down the generations…and I’m wondering, what can we do?
Simon Adebola: I hope there can be mega research institutes that will represent a focus on excellent research, openness to innovation, and economically sustainable models where research and innovation lead to productivity and development. I also think scholarships and studentships focused on solving the actual needs in the continent are a crucial need – these should come first. It is just that the selfishness can be acute and sometimes crippling, but we can’t deny the need to keep building capacity.
Seye Abimbola: We are presently finishing up the Build AfReCa! (African Research Capacity) paper for the journal Science. Build AfReCa! Is a very young network of young scientists, mostly Africans in the Diaspora, mostly students trying to work towards improving research capacity in Africa…
Simon Adebola: We need more and more of that, aggressively driving knowledge growth.
Seye Abimbola: We put out a survey in the last quarter of last year to assess the needs of young scientists from Africa and why they might not work in Africa and what might make them want to work in Africa, and their general geographical spread. At this stage, it’s essentially advocacy, creating a voice, an image, some advocacy for the need for funding, coordinated funding for young scientists in sub-Saharan Africa, funded to do great work on the ground in Africa
Simon Adebola: I think that is crucial and greater seriousness with African journals. We need the equivalent of The Lancet, BMJ and NEJM (New England Journal of Medicine) on the continent…In fact one could talk to some of these journals to help grow stronger journals with greater visibility on the continent.
Seye Abimbola: We will need to work with the model like PLoS (Public Library of Science). It would be nice to have a PLoS Africa…. PLoS is absolutely open access, and online with a good Impact Factor…The tricky bit is that it will be online, but again, internet access in Africa is getting better by the day…so, that can be done.
Simon Adebola: …and daily digests can be sent by email or even SMS gateways alerting of papers of interest…
Seye Abimbola: …the first place to go when looking for good studies from Africa.
Simon Adebola: I am sure we can get funding for that…The Library is online, you register and select your interest. Each time a paper of interest to you appears, based on your selection, you get an SMS with basic info on the paper.
Seye Abimbola: The journal will need an editorial team, a peer reviewer bank, et cereta.
Simon Adebola: This is the kind of aid they should be interested in giving Africa, not more money for corrupt leaders…
Seye Abimbola: Good. Maybe we should put a proposal together…
Simon Adebola: I think we should…once we have the back end defined well, and teams in place… and even though it costs, we can start with donor funding and once we have a critical base of users, we can work on different models to make it work. This would make research awareness go up greatly…
Seye Abimbola: Thanks. It’s been a great conversation, and I’m tempted to blog excerpts from the conversation on NT.org
Simon Adebola: Thanks. Please feel free to do that. It’s been a huge pleasure on my part.