Daryl Ilbury

South Africa’s shameful science #epicfail

In Eish!, Politics, Science on September 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

South Africa sits in the science corner

The latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report makes for interesting reading, especially if you have anything to do with South Africa.

It essentially assesses the competitiveness landscape of 144 economies, providing insight into their productivity and prosperity. Countries are ranked according to how they perform in terms of drivers such as infrastructure, labour market efficiency and financial market development.

So what has this go to do with science, I hear you ask. Good question. Outside of the obvious economy-linked drivers, the WEF includes the levels of health and primary education, and higher education and training. Specifically included as a measure of a country’s global competitiveness is the quality of maths and science education. This makes sense as they are not only two subjects that cross all language and cultural differences, but they also drive innovation and development.

And this is where South Africa hangs its head in shame. In terms of the quality of its maths and science education, South Africa is ranked 143rd out of 144 countries; i.e. second-to-last.

Yeah, sure, it’s a developing country and all that; but that’s no excuse; especially when you examine the other figures. In terms of the strength of its auditing and reporting standards; the efficacy of corporate boards; the regulations of security exchanges; and the legal rights index, South Africa is ranked 1st in the world. First. It also does pretty well when it comes to the protection of the interests of minority shareholders, where it is ranked 2nd in the world.

It’s in the protection of the quality of education of its children that South Africa fails utterly. The term ‘disconnect’ comes to mind. [There’s an interesting caveat here: not all the education is bad. We’re ranked 15th in the world in terms of the quality of our management schools].

So who’s to blame? Obviously the gloriously inefficient Departments of Basic Education and Education and Training need a ruler across the knuckles; but so do the various mainstream media organisations for stripping science from their traditional and well-worn offering of politics, crime, sport, business, and celebrity shenanigans.

But here’s the twist: the Minister in the Presidency for National Planning – the well-respected Trevor Manuel – has made it clear that the focus of the Government over, especially, the next two years includes the following:

  1. Food security, water security and rural development
  2. Adaptation strategies and environmental resilience
  3. More effective models of black economic empowerment
  4. Exercise, diets, nutrition and other preventative health areas
  5. Social cohesion and language
  6. Disability policy and
  7. Partnerships for innovation.

Now go back and read them again, and this time think which would require a firm grasp of science.

The reality is that ‘science’ for South Africa is not about major kick-ass endeavours such as SKA or CERN, neither is about the charming minutiae of the sex lives of newts. It’s harsh and it’s very real, and it’s tied in with matters of social and economic development; and the mainstream media need to understand that.

For an excellent example of this in the media, check out SciDev.net

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