A Call to the Scientist

Amongst the readers of this article, there are many who are science lovers. Although, there are also interesting, intelligent, passionate people who don’t like science at all, a few of us exist who absolutely love science. The science lovers among us speak quietly and subtly to the rest of humanity of our passion. We are a strange mysterious folk and usually a little defensive, because honesty must reveal that for most people, our world is really dull. Most will agree that science is useful; people like their electronic music and laptops and asthma inhalers but even so, these do nothing to rescue science from being inherently blah. If one were to go further into the sentiments of anti-science, there are some who may even argue that science is weird, and ultimately a little strange.

But the science lovers know otherwise whether they say it or not. The delicate, intricate, world of information is so beautiful, so expansive that people lose themselves inside it, body and soul and social life, and only to a very few others in objective, terse language and graphs do they communicate their devotion.

But as a few of us in academia have come to realize, this segregation of science into its own small little world is not okay anymore. There needs to be a better understanding of the role of science in society, so that we can better use science to its fullest power. Especially in faltering societies floundering in poverty, disease and environmental destruction, there is certainly a need for a diffusion of science information.

The great traditions within science of cooperation, sharing, and teaching of information and skills with one another needs to be extended directly to those in dire need of this assistance. Indeed, science knowledge in the southern hemisphere is generally severely lacking and this is a major setback for sustainable development. However, science can and should be used as a tool for empowering, and organizing society. Increased education on basic science information can bring greater awareness for individuals and families on relevant issues important for health, nutrition, agricultural, conservation, and ecology. This being the case, the goal of this article is to be a call to arms for fellow science lovers who believe in a positive role for science in society. Scientist and science educators must be applied to for help in achieving the United Nations Eight Millennium Development Goals, lofty though they may be, to combat poverty and end environmental destruction. The interest and engagement of this grand epistemic community will be a small step forward in goal number eight alone which is to “foster a global partnership for development”[1].

Much to Alarm

Many of the dangers to humanity that are due to the damage of the environment are disproportionately concentrated in the southern hemispheres. As Hilde Frafjord Johnson, Norway’s Minister of International Development writes:

“The poor are more vulnerable than others to environmental hazards and environmental-related conflicts and least able to cope with them when they occur. They also tend to be most dependent on the environment and direct use of natural resources, and are therefore most severely affected by environmental degradation and lack of access….”[2]

Tim Hirsch a BBC correspondent writes “of the 1.1 billion people living on less than $1 a day, around 70% live in rural areas where they depend heavily on subsistence agriculture, grazing and hunting; activities that require healthy ecosystems.”[3] Yet already many of these ecosystem are often not healthy, and the ones that are, are rapidly threatened by soil degradation, climate change and other modern environmental disasters.

Summarizing a report by the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development, Zablon Odhiambo points out that nutrients stripped out of Africa’s soils have resulted in 75% of farmland being degraded.[4] Furthermore, the report shows that in the two years between 2002 and 2004, “85% of African farmland lost more than 30 kilograms of nutrients per hectare per year.” [5] In a few countries the loss was much worse: Angola, Burundi, Congo, Guinea, Rwanda and Uganda, suffered losses of more than 60 kilograms per hectare per year.[6] The result of this is absolutely dire, “Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world to have shown an overall decline in food production, made worse by the vicious cycle of poverty and the deterioration of soils in the drylands.” [7]

In addition, the story of climate change while initiated in the industrialized world, now has its plot turned towards the south. Johnson notes “Climate change is a reminder of the fact that poor people are most likely to be the first victims and the greatest sufferers of environmental degradation.” [8] Hirsch’s reiterates in more detail, “ it is the drylands of Africa, the low-lying delta of Bangladesh and the glacier-fed mountain croplands of South America which stand to lose most from accelerated global warming.” [9]

What Science is there now?

The things that can be done by ordinary folk in developing countries is further hampered by the severe lack of education and more so science education. The positive effects of education for the well-being and quality of life for the poorest in developing countries is no longer challenged. A study addressing the disproportionate of absences of girls in receiving education, noted that educated mothers immunize their children 50% more often than mothers who are not educated. [10] Further evidence for the importance of education noted that the children of women with five years of primary school, have a survival rate 40% higher than children of women with no education. [11] Also, the study noted that AIDS spreads twice as quickly among uneducated girls than among girls that have even the most minimal of schooling.[12] With its benefits so clear, the fact that more than 40 percent of women in Africa do not have access to basic education is sorely depressing.[13] Clearly this information shows that the dearth of basic education which includes health and hygiene related issues are fatal for the worlds most unfortunate.

Looking at Science and Science education more specifically, the gap continues to be alarming. The raw statistics clearly point to a distortion. While the North has 85.5% of the world’s scientists and engineers, developing countries have only 14.5%.[14] To show the same point in the language of money, while 96% of what is spent in research and development is spent in the North, only 4% is spent in the south. [15] In other indicators, such as % GNP spent on research, contributions to international publications to science journals, and the achievement of patents to technology, the south again, is vastly behind. [16] It naturally follows that when the majority of science is done by the industrialized world, the majority of results, technologies and ideas will benefit industrialized societies.

Specifically with regards to education, (the total budget for secondary is given as “science education” budgets are rarely identified separately) the North on average spends more than $5000 per child per year while the south can only afford from $50 to as low as $1 in the poorest countries.[17] Africa is as per usual the worst off, with the majority of countries with enrolment rates into secondary school less than 40% and as low as 5%.[18] Furthermore, attendance rates in upper levels of secondary school, where any significant science can at be taught are 50% to 30% lower than they are in lower levels of secondary. [19]

While this is not news to many who pay attention to the state of the world, it may be more surprising and distressing that some of these challenges in the South has been created by lack of activity and attention by those in the North. Publications in science are often written in English, which while may be understood by a privileged few from the south, are not of much help to the general population.[20] In addition to this, scientists from the south have more difficulty publishing their work in established journals due to conventions on language, access to up-to-date information, and guidelines on experimental protocol that cannot be as easily accomplished under inadequate technology access and financing. [21] Also, there is not sufficient engagement and sharing of information and technology with the scientist from the south. [22] Dr. Carlos L. de la Rosa from the Department of Environment Management in Pinellas County Florida remarks, “Access to scientific literature in developing countries is marginal at best. While scientists and college students can use the resources of fairly good technical libraries, individuals are less fortunate.” [23] In these conditions, it is easy to see how a serious scientist cannot resist an invitation to work in a Northern state, thus contributing to the brain drain and further loss of science expertise.

De la Rosa asserts “broad access to scientific information is key for people to understand, participate and respond to the challenges that development poses to civilization. Understanding of issues such as global warming, loss of biodiversity, evolution, implications of genetic research, and many other topics is essential, almost a requisite, for personal involvement in these issues.[24] ”

Stories for Feeding Hope

If this is not enough to convince the reader, there are recent stories of how basic science knowledge on trees and their role in the environment, shared with communities, can make positive long-lasting change. Dr. Wangari Maathai is a woman who should be known to everyone. A scientist, she was the initiator of the Green Belt Movement in 1977 which would later win her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.[25] The basic premise of the Green Belt Movement is simple, women educated on the importance of trees and forests are then empowered to locally plant trees in their surrounding environment and practice conservation.[26] These simple efforts have won an incredible response and vast rewards.

GBM today has over 600 community networks across Kenya that care for 6,000 tree nurseries. Over the years these networks, along with individuals, have participated in planting more than 30 million trees on private and public land, protected reserves, sites with cultural significance and in urban centers. This has resulted in the transformation of many landscapes (forests, steep slopes and other degraded areas) and protection and restoration of habitats for local biodiversity (plants and animals). Kenyans’ attitudes toward the environment have also been transformed: awareness of the impacts of ecological decline has increased along with public interest in defending the environment, including forests and public parks and open space. Tree-planting also provides an entry point for GBM Kenya’s other initiatives, including civic and environmental education, capacity building and advocacy.[27]

While this is one of the most impressive stories of change, there are many other in which the simple recipe of science education on conservation or health and local organization, served to mobilize the community and improve the well being of many. There is so much to offer from having a love of science that is not yet been sufficiently directed to global concerns. I have great optimism, however, in things changing, that has derived not only from great compassionate scientists such as Linus Pauling or David Suzuki, but from encounters with much more ordinary individuals amongst UBC staff and students who seek to bridge a role between science and sustainable development. However much more should and can be done, for in truth the current scientific community is one largely unconcerned with the plight of the world’s most vulnerable peoples.


1. “The Goals” ,in the UN Millennium Development Goals, [cited 4 April 2006].

2. Hilde Frafjord Johnson, “Sustainable Development, a Global Challenge” Environment & Poverty Times, September 2005, 1.

3. Tim Hirsch, “Ecosystem Protection, a Key to Development” Environment & Poverty Times, September 2005, 2.

4. Zablon Odhiambo, “African Soils being ‘Mined of Life’” SciDev.Net, 31 March 2006.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Tim Hirsch, 2.

8. Hilde Frafjord Johnson, 1.

9. Tim Hirsch, 2,

10. “Fast Facts: The Faces of Poverty,” in UN Millennium project, 2005, [cited 4 April 2006].

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Yongyuth Yuthavong, “Science and Technology in Developing Countries,” in Science and Technology in Thailand: Lessons from a Developing Economy, ed. Yongyuth Yuthavong and Angela M. Wojcik (Bangkok, Thailand: NSTDA/UNESCO, 1997), 5.

15. Ibid., 5.

16. Ibid., 5-7.

17. Keith M Lewin, Mapping Science Education Policy in Developing Countries (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2000), 8.

18. Ibid., 5.

19. Ibid., 6.

20. Carlos L. de la Rosa “Improving Science Literacy and Conservation in Developing Countries” in, 2000—[cited 4 April 2006].

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. “About The Green Belt Movement” in The Green Belt Movment, [cited 4 April 2006].
26. Ibid.

27. “GBM Kenya: Highlights of Thirty Years of Achievements ” in The Green Belt Movment, [cited 4 April 2006].

Related Topics


Anne Nguyen is a MSc Candidate in the Department of Pathology and Experimental Medicine. She is a long time volunteer with the non-profit development organization Oxfam Canada She highly recommends being involved in social activism and philanthropic volunteering as alternate means from reading your pulse to check to see if you are indeed alive. She is also an amateur musician and sings and performs for herself almost all the time.