Speaking to young scientists gathered at the final examination of the Young Nigerian Scientists Presidential Award (YONSPA) last week, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, bemoaned the declining interest of Nigerian youths in science subjects. On a more cheerful note, the honorable minister also announced a new initiative by the Science and Technology ministry, “Catching them Young,” designed to stimulate young people’s interest. According to Dr. Onu, “The programme will help them to explore the moon, heavenly bodies, ocean wealth (sic) in order to reduce poverty and contribute to solving major national, regional and international problems.”
It is encouraging that the government appears to be coming to terms with an issue that science teachers, policy think tanks, and stakeholders across the education sector have been calling attention to over the past several decades. Furthermore, the Science and Technology minister could not have chosen a better occasion to flag the matter, and we applaud his ministry’s efforts to change the orientation of Nigerian youths, starting with the “Catching them Young” initiative. Yet, while well-meaning, the minister’s statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and place of science in any society. For instance, Dr. Onu appears to have a utilitarian conception of science, seeing it as just another way to “reduce poverty and contribute to solving major national, regional and international problems.”
Granted, the fruits of scientific exploration may ultimately help in ameliorating poverty, and no doubt they have. But poverty reduction is not why you engage in science. You dabble in science because of simple fascination, because you find something intriguing (the “fire” in fireflies, say), because there is an itch you want scratched. This is why the most renowned scientists (Newton, Laplace, Galton, etc) are also typically gadgeteers and tinkerers. There is an element of play, of experimentation, of fancy, even fantasy, that is invariably attached to what they do. Science, then, is fundamentally about curiosity.
This is not a trivial observation. On the contrary, it has implications for how to approach the issue of declining interest in science that the Scienceand Technology Minister seems poised to tackle. One implication is that the pursuit of science cannot be divorced from education in toto. It does seem implausible, even heretical, on the surface, but an investment in history, in economics, in the language arts, in communication and, crucially, in philosophy, is at the same time an investment in science. Infrastructure-wise, an investment in one is an investment in the rest. Besides, if the penchant for interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity in the modern academy confirms anything, it is the essential fluidity of the boundaries separating all disciplines, especially the sciences from the arts.
Logically following from this is a second implication: while sustained state investment in education is needed in order to achieve the minister’s aim of “catching them young,” the scientific imagination needs the right cultural attitude in order to flourish. The truth of the matter is that, for the most part, the prevailing normative structures in Nigeria are rigorously anti-science. Nothing will change if the average Nigerian’s attitude towards scienceand scientific discovery does not change. Right now, Nigerians revel in the fruits of science, even as they hold on to superstitious beliefs that science pointedly repudiates.
The government cannot hope to arrest the declining interest of youths in science if Nigerians continue to disclaim science in their everyday lives.