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Integrating Scientific Developments with Societal Needs

Calestous Juma: Integrating Scientific Developments with Societal Needs
Calestous Juma, professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University, recently published an article entitled “Forget Natural Resource: it’s Science and Tech that will Transform Africa.” The article explains the importance of more closely integrating scientific developments with societal needs.

Juma explains how there is a prevailing view that science is separate from ongoing developments in society. People believe that scientific advances occur removed from society and that it is simply convenient when scientific developments happen to benefit society in some way.

However, Calestous Juma believes that making societal improvement a goal for scientific researchers could net more efficient results. He points to the second law of thermodynamics as an example. While engineers were attempting to improve the steam engine for practical purposes, they ended up coming up with the second law of thermodynamics. Here, a development in scientific theory arose while trying to improve a facet of society.

A clear modern day example of what Juma proposes can be seen in the Grand Challenges initiatives launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Grand Challenges Exploration is an initiative that issues a set of challenges twice a year. Researchers apply with ideas they have to solve those challenges, and monetary grants are awarded to the most deserving.

For example, the initiative recently issued challenges to “Design New Analytics Approaches for Malaria Elimination” and to “Explore New Ways to Measure Delivery and Use of Digital Financial Services Data”. Proactively calling upon science to assist in these kinds of societal advancement provides a more streamlined pathway for scientific developments to lead to societal betterment.

Juma also questions the way universities separate the hard sciences from the social sciences in their academic curriculums. If you visit a college, you are likely to see people defining themselves as STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) students versus humanities students. This arbitrary distinction carries on to pervade the view of society in general, causing scientific developments to not be as helpful to society as it could be.

Calestous Juma calls for more integration between the various academic disciplines. In real world applications, often one needs a mix of skills from multiple disciplines of study. We need to acknowledge the value of interdisciplinary knowledge moving forward.

Juma proposes what he calls “innovation universities.” These universities would “combine research, teaching, extension and commercialization of new products and services,” giving students the means to work towards scientific advances in the context of societal demands.

Edmond Kim

Photo: Flickr