A country that ignores science – Regina Kwarteng

As urban folks will put it, a career in pure science has been rendered the status of a “side chick”. On the contrary, it should be “bae” goals, a priority.

Back in secondary school, chemistry was my favourite subject (God, I loved Chemistry), the course spoke to me in ways no subject did. Being young and naïve, I looked up to my tutors for my career path and I was strongly advised to apply for medicine at the University (apparently, I had the head for it). Fast forward to the future (or the present) and I don’t end up as a doctor (not yet, or the kind with access to drugs). I vividly remember when I was admitted into the Biochemistry programme at KNUST and told one of my tutors that I was going to accept the offer, you could see the unsettling expression on his face. It was a mixture of disappointment and genuine angst. The teacher’s pet was not going to be a medical doctor, after all, there are pharmacy and engineering as alternatives but why biochemistry? So, after four years of studying biochemistry, what is she going to do with her life? Where is she going to work? Is she going to add up to the hundreds of unemployed graduates out there or eventually end up in the classroom like me? I know my tutor truly cared for me but I am positive these were his exact thoughts when I told him of my university offer, they were my exact thoughts once I was offered the course and these thoughts recurred throughout my four years at the University.

The truth is as a science student; no one prepares you for a life or career in the pure sciences. Especially, if you happen to excel like those brilliant chaps we see in the national science and math quizzes. Your options as a science student are medicine, pharmacy, engineering and occasionally nursing. No one and nothing prepares you for the sciences, so once you get in it is totally up to you on how you succeed and make something of your life. As a student of the pure sciences, you are never short of probing like these ones, “so your course what do you actually do? Where do you work? Are you the guys who work at Guinness?” You always tend not to have a direct answer; you can’t actually name one place off your head that your skills could be applied. So you always end up evading these questions and laughing them off but inside you are frightened as hell and freaking out like never before. Even your lecturers can’t exactly tell your place in the society. You can’t seem to figure out whether you belong to the industry or the health sector or anywhere else. Your government, on one hand, keeps telling your kind to go orbit a black hole. Science is not their priority; it doesn’t bring it the votes. Eventually, you reach the point where you realise that your life is literally screwed.

It is not out of caprice or whim that a career in medicine was strongly advocated for by my mentors (hello, have you visited Ghana). The prestige alone attached to the profession well speaks for itself. A career in medicine means you are set for life financially and your kindred gets to follow in your footstep. Go to any senior high school in the country and the reality on the ground is that the smart and outstanding students (BRILLA) are more or less compelled to apply for medicine at the university. A career in the sciences is often a second option after medicine that is unwillingly forced upon us. As urban folks will put it, a career in pure science has been rendered the status of a “side chick”. On the contrary, it should be “bae” goals, a priority. Dr Kaufmann, a biomedical scientist and popular for her role as the quiz mistress of the national science and maths quiz in a recent interview said, “someone has to be a medical doctor but if everyone wanted to be one, what happens to our nation building?”

The scientific inventions we see all around us are works of brilliant scientists old and new. At the time when the world and Germany were at the brink of hunger and starvation, it took the exceptional intelligence of Fritz Haber, a German Chemist, to conjure ammonia from the air to be used in mass production of fertiliser. The works of Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Rosalind Franklin, Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Watson and Crick and all the genius minds of the 19th and 20th century have formed the foundations of modern inventions we see around us. These were chemists, biochemists, theoretical physicists, mathematicians among others. The next time you safely gulp down a tall glass of fresh milk without suffering from an explosive diarrhoea due to E.coli and Salmonella contamination, do pause to say cheers to the likes of Louis Pasteur, a microbiologist. Kary B. Mulis is a biochemist whose invention continues to brighten up the lives of geneticists, forensic scientists, biotechnologists and so many others. Mulis won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for the invention and automation of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The PCR to a scientist is what social media is to a millennial (how did we survive without it). Notable mentions are Jennifer Doudna a biochemist, for her invention of the CRISPR-Cas9 system, a gene editing tool that has potential to treat diseases like sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis and even HIV. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Science is truly fascinating and scientists all over the world are motivated daily to unravel the mysteries of the universe and life as we know it. This comes at a cost and a really expensive one too. The innovations and inventions we see and benefit from are the returns of millions and perhaps billions of dollars of investments in the form of funds. Countries that invest in science and technology continue to reap the rewards as the development of any country is centred on how active their research is. Countries like South Korea, Israel, Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany spend 4.1, 4.2, 3.1, 3, and 2.9% of their respective GDPs on science. These countries are world leaders and top spenders in research and development. In Ghana, the latest report suggests that 0.025% of the nation’s GDP has been allocated for research. Prof Frimpong Boateng, the minister of environment, science and innovation laments that this paltry amount “is not enough to pay the scientist much more to undertake the research.” Economists all over the world do concur that science is the engine of prosperity, unfortunately for our nation, investment in science doesn’t seem worthwhile.

Our universities are underfunded and research facilities are limited in the country so the last resort for the young and enterprising Ghanaian scientist is to look for greener pastures outside, where her skills will be utilised and her passion not burnt out. Scientists continue to emigrate overseas contributing their quota for strategic development and our government looks on nonchalant. As a nation, we cannot do away with science, we need our brightest minds for its continued success, pushing boundaries and being at the frontier of science and technology. A country that ignores the sciences is one that is doomed to fail. It is high time policy makers and stakeholders alike gave equal attention and opportunities to scientists and young graduates in the sciences; for science is the bedrock of national growth and development.

LEARN SCIENCE, AIM HIGH.

By Regina KwartengBSc (Hons), MSc, PhD (Cand.)
Research Scientist in Cancer Biology, Molecular Biology, Myopia
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

2 Comments

  1. Well said Regina!! Perhaps some of us will have to move into politics to really push the change we need.

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