Science Alarm!

Nayeem Hossain

Nayeem Hossain

Science Guru
I was watching Elon Musk’s interview in The Daily Show the other night. Those who don’t know, Elon is the entrepreneur and engineer who co-founded PayPal. Later he established Tesla Motors, the premier electric car company and now SpaceX- the first private initiative for space expedition and space tourism. Answering a question he said he vision three frontiers,; internet, renewable energy and space, for the humanity to thrive in the future and somehow he always got involved in those sectors. He thinks the goal of SpaceX, which is to create multi-planetary habitat for humanity, is not going to be achieved for many years to come; but the innovations we’ll have to achieve that goal will help humanity go forward. He’s not only a visionary innovator but also a businessman. I think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates created this new breed of innovators who now know the value of vision, research and commerce. Graham Bell and Edison before them did the same thing. They used their knowledge, vision and extra ordinary ability to be where they are right now. I think that’s why there is only one Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. But what about the people who work with them to create these new household names- Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, PayPal? The brains, the machines running these giants are the unsung heroes; they all had taken science as their passion and profession. They went to school, acquired the basic skills and now working in the most exciting fields, in the most exciting times and making some exciting amount of money too!!

The second news I saw today on Prothom-Alo was a report that in Bangladesh, students electing Science as their choice of faculty has dropped to half in last 22 years. In last 8 years the drop was 32 percent. In Higher Secondary the trend continues, meaning the ones who elected to stay with Science in Secondary School system were also closing avenues. That is not only alarming from educational point of view but also an indication of what grave disaster awaits us economically. We have a trend in Bangladesh. When we see someone or one industry successful, we all jump in that bandwagon. I have mentioned that trend before. The Chinese restaurants became coaching centers or fast food joints, then English medium schools, then universities; or garments and hospitals. Regardless of the size of the investment, it’s always in a field of sure success. In the colonial times, most got education for a government job. Then the trend of doctors and engineers came, and then came the wave of business school graduates. All for one thing, surety of success. I can understand the sentiment, in a poor country most look education as a way out of poverty. If that’s true then why would they drop out from science in the rudimentary level? Don’t they know to become doctors, engineers- you have to come with a science background? Does that mean that kids are looking for an easy way out of school or does that mean the environment in schools already discourages them to take the challenge of analytical education? Those who successfully finish Higher Secondary with Science, I don’t think more than 15-20 percent continue with science related subjects in universities.

In economy you need a combination of land, labor and capital to develop. Human capital is the most important sector a third world country can invest in. What this report showed is we are already destroying that potential. United States has specified massive decrease in R&D sector as a reason of USA’s dwindling position in global economy. Singapore and Taiwan by landmass is not even comparable to Bangladesh, yet their economy flourish because of their R&D sectors. In the 21st century for any economy to prosper or sustain superiority research and development, innovation would be the most critical element. The days of labor intensive industries agriculture to support the entire economy will be down trending with the advancement of technology and with a scarcity of minerals and natural resources. Bangladesh doesn’t have the abundance of land to create heavy industries overnight; neither have the luxury of unlimited natural resource. What we have, in abundance (!), is people. Especially a massive population under 30 who still has a chance to invest themselves in innovative industries to create domestic markets and then compete globally. The trend of millions of business school graduates are there because of the outburst of consumer sectors in Bangladesh. Banks, consumer and food related multinationals, cell phone companies, media all industries exploded because of the rapid growth of a young middle class. Consumers use the end products, majority of which are not produced domestically. This boom doesn’t give us the base for our economy. Also, with agriculture, we have come up with newer technologies and crops. At present the seeds, fertilizers are all coming from multinationals. Meaning we can’t compete in production and innovation. Only in expanding markets for others.

Richard Dawkins said, if only majority of us could see the amazing world of science, it would’ve opened their eyes. To have an enlighten society; we have to invest in our children and their studying science. For that if we have to take painstaking long term initiatives of massive revamp of our education system, then let’s do it. To be honest, I don’t think we are doing any justice to the ability of children by narrowing their study field at such an early age. If all of them were smart enough to study the same subjects until 8th grade then let them continue with all basic faculties till secondary school. I don’t think economics or business is something you’ll understand at that age anyways. You have to be a critical thinker to analyze and what better way to train them to learn logic, reason and critical thinking then math, basic laws of physics or complexity of chemistry. We just have to give them the taste, not the full course meal at that age. We have to be realist, that rural schools don’t have enough science teachers (not that all the science teachers in Dhaka are greats!), but I think it’s hard for the teachers to understand themselves because there’s just too much information for that level. We have to take time, provide training for the teachers- city by city, school by school. We can use online training for teachers, instead of giving them a crash course, have the material online so they can access it at their own pace, teach themselves and send inquiries later on. The union level information centers or primary education office can provide the logistics. For the students, I can’t emphasize more on the need of libraries. So they can do extra reading, access internet and feel encouraged by the world of science. At least for now, we have to have workshops, quiz competitions, multimedia presentations to show them the vast fields of science and technology. We have to show them that medical schools and engineering is not science. Research in fundamental subjects can give them a living too. Also with the supply of higher number of students in science subjects will force universities to improve their facilities or open new departments in private universities. Even if they want to go for business and humanities as higher education, they’ll need a solid background on math and basic knowledge of science. They live in a global village and the opportunities are endless. This will open doors to work globally like many in Silicon Valley at present. Who knows may be we’ll see one or two Elon Musk pooping up too. 🙂