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Opinions of Thursday, 7 September 2017

Columnist: Francis Kwarteng

Akufo-Addo, listen to tekonline.org on science and technology

We recently wrote an article “Akufo-Addo’s Plagiarized Speech, An enemy Of Science And Technology.” This article was actually a partial response to a comment made on Ghanaweb (“Say It Loud” (SIL)) which the commentator Tekonline.org, a KNUST mate of this author (Francis Kwarteng), brought to his attention (the latter).

Fortunately for us, Tekonline.org, perhaps an authority on S.T.E.M-education (among other pedagogical strategies) and on issues of science and technology and their applications in real life, on Ghanaweb (readers should also visit his website www.tekonline.org), provided this outstanding commentary on our article. We believe this commentary deserves a wider readership. Please read on:

Quite frankly, I was confused by the title.

But, politics aside, the write-up has many points deserving our attention and reflection.

(1) "...The fact is that it is technology—and not natural resource assets per se—that truly rules the world. Ghana and Africa for that matter, if we may also add, are far behind the technological race.

We cannot overemphasize that technology does harbor enormous implications for health, agriculture, energy, food production and security, employment and unemployment issues, environmentalism, life expectancy, problems of water management and engineering, and so on..."

So true, but Africa, in a way, has a chance now to be a major player in the current rapid pace of technological advancements. Technology today has significantly moved away from being MACHINERY-based to having SOFTWARE as the main driver. Unlike industrial machines, software's main "infrastructure" is none other than the HUMAN BRAIN. And there are main fine African brains out there, from Chinery-Hesse to Bright Simmons, to all those Nigerian girls that write code for Google.

Africa must aggressively embrace software development, because, as Marc Andreesen famously put it, "software is eating the world". Let's start with the young, opening coding academies all over the country, and expanding the computer science departments in every educational institution. Let's put learning languages like PYTHON before French (and perhaps our francophone neighbors might flock to Ghana to learn computer programming).

(2) "...Let us just say that technological innovation represents the missing link between natural resource assets and true wealth.

And yet technological innovation is a state of mind. It is a state of mind because the conceptual origination of technology itself does not exist outside the creative immanence of human consciousness.

It is also possible that the optimal interactions between immanence and the environment are what dictate a particular strategy of technological response to the human condition..."

There is indeed some truth in all that. But let me emphasize the true qualities exhibited by scientists and technologists.

Scientists make discoveries because of three main attributes they tend to possess:

• being OBSERVANT

• being CURIOUS

• having the ability to "CONNECT THE DOTS".

A good example is the discovery of the microwave oven. Percy Spencer was working on a radar equipment and noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket was melting as he switched on the machine. He OBSERVED, became CURIOUS, and by a series of fact finding investigations and discussions, he finally "CONNECTED THE DOTS" and the microwave oven was born.

Similarly, James Gordon, one of the physicists responsible for the discovery of the laser (without which there would have been be no CD and DVD players), got the idea of the laser while watching the ball during a tennis match.

And most profound of all was the discovery of the Genetic Code by Watson and Crick. Rosalind Franklin obtained the X-ray crystallography of DNA, but as soon as Watson and Crick looked at the X-ray film, they quickly "connected the dots" and came up with the revolutionary Genetic Code, which gave birth to the modern field of Molecular Biology.

Students at all stages should be made to cultivate the skill of "connecting the dots", which is the art of drawing logical conclusions from observations. For instance, if whenever you use a particular perfumed soap, you hardly get any mosquito bite, you can connect the fragrance with a potential mosquito repellent.

Engineers and Technologists (often considered applied scientists) also share some of those three characteristics, but are first and foremost PROBLEM SOLVERS.

Technological innovations involve the use of scientific discoveries for solving problems. Inventors are always seeking problems to solve. Being very observant, they do notice problems and quickly set out to provide solutions.

Our Ghanaian royal handlers being such great problem-solvers, managed to create those huge umbrellas for the chiefs (why didn't they get into manufacturing small umbrellas for the general public?).

And even more fascinating, we hear the Ashantis have a way of gold-plating the skins of their dead kings. (Yet, science tells us it's next to impossible to bond human skin with metal).

But, our market women STILL carry goods on their heads, a problem still waiting for a solution after hundreds of years, or nobody has yet OBSERVED?

Inventors go out into the world seeking technological problems to solve. It cannot be any simpler than that.

(3) "...This is why we need to put up the proper institutions to produce the kind of human capital with enormous capacity for technological innovation. .."

We already have the proper institution. WE NEED TO EXPAND AND SUPPORT CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research).

Our scientists and engineers in the universities will always be distracted by the 3 'T's: TEACHING, TRAINING, and TESTING students. Therefore let’s move CSIR forward by infusing plenty of funding and resources to tackle problems and innovate for the future of the country. Let's expand CSIR to cover EVERY aspect of the Ghanaian life.

(4) "...we need to consider bringing our great men and women of the diaspora, in the West especially, such as Dr. Victor Lawrence, on board..."

This cannot be overemphasized, for we have SO MANY Ghanaian experts in the West. In fact, any discussion about the development of the Laser cannot be complete with the mention of Prof Herbert Winful, one of the smartest Ghanaians that ever lived (as Augusco guys would attest to)

laserfest.org/lasers/pioneers/winful.cfm

Or Dr. Louis Essandoh, who trains American doctors to become cardiologists,

Or Kwabena Adu Boahen, who designs computer chips based on how the human brain works, and hundreds more, too numerous to mention here.

It is also very refreshing to learn that a Ghanaian scientist at NASA is now collaborating with CSIR in the field of Robotics.

It is soooo obvious—Ghana has so much to gain by tapping the brains of diasporans. PLEASE START NOW!

(5) "... We also need to fight institutional corruption, promote an enabling culture of inventiveness, take S.T.E.M.-education Information and Communication Technology (ICT) seriously, collaborate with others already in the lead of technological innovation and scientific advancement, incentivize innovative researchers in S.T.E.M. education, and change the current system of education where rote memorization dominates..."

To accomplish this, first and foremost we must stamp out hardships. As long as the kids and the populace at large are not HUNGRY, they would care about STEM, innovation, inventions, discoveries, etc.

And that is the part for the politicians!

Third world countries tend to lag behind in technological innovation because they, by and large, have no choice but to operate in the "survival mode", almost all their lives, with the minds preoccupied with putting food on the table, making ends meet, and so on.

But since we cannot wait for the politicians to create a wealthy paradise for all, the least we can do now is to provide INCENTIVES.

As part of STEM education, organize Science Fairs, with door prizes, awards, and scholarships. Bring STEM to every home through fascinating documentaries on every TV set. Organize excursions for elementary school kids, taking them to wonders of science and technology (Akosombo dam, MRI machines in the hospital, a TV studio, inside a jet plane at Kotoka, the various factories in the country, etc.).

Give an I-Pad to any student that comes up with an innovative technological idea, even on paper.

Yes, there is so much that can be done to make Africa catch up!

Happy Memorial Day, Francis, and hoping your hamburgers wouldn't turn soggy from all that rain!

Kwabena Adu Boahen (Stanford University), who designs computer chips based on how the human brain works. (His work became the cover story of the Prestigious Scientific American).