Talking science year-round

Creating conversations about science and technology can help drive innovation and progress for everyone, says University of the Western Cape Research Head Prof Thandi Mgwebi.

Speaking on the sidelines of the second annual Department of Science and Technology (DST) Science Forum South Africa last week, Prof Mgwebi said it was in everyone’s interest to embrace science and understand its impact on everyday life.

“If we found ways to encourage everyone to appreciate science, more people would harness it in their everyday lives, in areas ranging from agricultural development to more controlled water usage and saving the planet. If the conversations around science filtered down to communities and families, more youngsters would be inspired to work in the sciences, our businesses would become more innovative, and motivating for research budgets would be easier.”

While the DST aims to see 1.5% of GDP invested in research by 2019, South African investment in research currently stands in the region of 0.76% of GDP. Prof Mgwebi believes that increased investment in research will support innovation and result in a better quality of life for all.

Prof Mgwebi notes that efforts are being stepped up to make science more accessible to everyone. The DST has developed a Science Engagement Framework which aims to:

* “Popularise science, engineering, technology and innovation as attractive, relevant and accessible in order to enhance scientific literacy and awaken interest in relevant careers through science education support, science literacy for the public and career support.
* Develop a critical public that actively engages and participates in the national discourse of science and technology for societal benefit.
* Promote science communication that will enhance science engagement in South Africa through science communications media, and science communication as a profession.
* Profile South African science and science achievements domestically and internationally, demonstrating their contribution to national development and global science, thereby enhancing the public standing of South African science.”

The annual DST Science Forum South Africa at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria raises awareness and brings together the science community and its stakeholders, as well as the broader community, business and public sector. The event’s outreach programme, Science on the Street, takes the latest developments in many fields of science out to the public in the form of interactive exhibits and workshops, reaching potentially thousands of people.

The events form part of the DST’s broader engagement strategy, which aims to raise awareness about the impact of science. However, bringing science into the conversation need not be the preserve of science-focused events such as these, she says. “For example, at community level, we owe it to our communities to promote the science conversation when looking at topical issues like how to manage water restrictions. Journalists could make more of an effort to report on science and technology issues. Schools could strive to make the sciences more engaging.”

The DST White Paper promotes the inclusive participation of society in science. To enable this inclusivity, society must understand the contributions of science, technology and innovation to national prosperity and to sustainability. The investment made by the Department in science promotion and engagement is in line with international shifts in the public-science interface, from ‘science literacy’ to the ‘public understanding of science’ paradigms and more recently to a ‘science and society’ agenda.

“While government departments and private sector organisations are starting to contribute to raising awareness, we still have a long way to go. We need to see much more communication around the impact of science and technology. Having conversations at community, regional and national level year-round would contribute to South Africa becoming a more knowledge based society,” she says.

Professor Mgwebi further states that it is widely recognised and acknowledged that the influence of science on people’s lives is growing. Technological innnovations, for example, have had major impacts on individuals, communities and on the environment. Such impacts need to be communicated. This can be effectively done when science is more multidisciplinary and where scientists promote co-operation and integration between the social and natural sciences. The approaches should draw on the contributions of the humanities, (such as visual history, philosophy, etc) local knowledge systems, and the multitude of cultural values. A powerful example for such an approach is work conducted through the DST-NRF Flagship in Critical Thought in African Humanities at the University of the Western Cape ( The Flagship recently staged a production “I love you when you are breathing” at the launch of this year’s Science Forum SA event in Cape Town. The production highlighted a multidisciplinary approach to the human condition.