Educationists in Uganda called for more funding for the basic sciences of chemistry, biology, physics and geology last month, amid an ongoing decline in student interest in pursuing these in favour of applied sciences.
The call was made at an innovation meeting organised by the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology in Kampala, which sought to explore ways to facilitate research and innovation including the possibility of doubling domestic funding rather than relying on foreign donors. A number of scientists such as Professor Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, lead researcher for the Kiira EV project, attended the meeting.
“We are already witnessing a shortage in personnel on the continent with a deeper understanding of the subjects. Soon, it is going to be worse,” said Enos Kiremire, a retired professor of organic chemistry in Kampala who taught at the University of Namibia.
Kiremire told University World News more students were inclined today to pursue medicine, agriculture or engineering at the undergraduate level rather than the basic sciences. This has to change or at least a “balance” should be sought, he said.
He called on African governments to “more than double” their funding for the sciences to motivate prospective scientists to study and forge careers in the sciences.
“It’s a big challenge,” he said, singling out Uganda – which has more than 40 universities but has no registered patent with the World Intellectual Property Organization.
“You cannot discover new formulas and innovations unless you delve deeper into the subject,” said Kiremire.
The available funding enables scholars to merely “scratch the surface” and many students, who might be interested in chemistry, either go for medicine or chemical engineering, as the disciplines are “easier” to pursue compared to the sciences, he said.
“A chemical engineer is not a chemist; he has elements of chemistry and engineering. Doctors may study chemistry, but they are not chemists. African universities are producing lots of engineers, but engineers usually do not innovate,” said Kiremire.
Dr Data Santorino, lecturer in the department of paediatrics at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, said the dwindling numbers were more of a national than an individual university problem that also extended to the rest of Africa.
He said African governments needed to invest in infrastructure and laboratories in order to attract students pursuing careers in hard sciences if such countries were not to be left behind by other continents.
“We are talking immunology reference labs and nanotechnology – huge investments only governments can set up,” said Santorino, who is also the Uganda country manager for a consortium of affordable medical technologies, CAMTech Uganda.
“We live in a global world where intellectual property is big. So, if we are not contributing to new discoveries, to new ideas, what are we really doing?”
“Our governments should wake up and provide environments that can facilitate research and innovation to contribute to new knowledge,” he said.
Students opt for applied sciences because they do not see good job prospects with basic sciences, he said.
Professor Fredrick Muyodi, deputy principal for the College of Natural Sciences at Makerere University, agreed, saying Uganda, and Africa in general, needed to rethink funding strategies.
“We won’t have pure chemists, physicists, or biologists at our universities on this continent if we don’t do something,” said Muyodi in a telephone interview with University World News.
“Most of the people who discovered most of the laws and principles that are moving the world were physicists or chemists or biologists.”
Muyodi said it was not true that universities preferred career-specific subjects.
As an example, he referred to research conducted in 2017 by the Institute of Education, University College London, which found that the Russell Group universities, comprised of Britain’s 24 leading institutions including Oxford and Cambridge, tended to favour students with a thorough grounding in the core sciences.
George Ebine, an information officer at the National Council for Higher Education in Uganda, acknowledged the diminishing numbers and need for funding.
“A number of students follow the money. They abandon courses they would be good at and where they are likely to have a better impact in the world in favour of those perceived to be lucrative. This too has to change,” Ebine said.