“Diversity makes science better”
Elizabeth Rasekoala (Nigeria, 1960), a chemical engineer, is one of the world’s best recognised voices for her fight in favour of empowering women and of diversity, and also against the climate crisis. She set up and presides over the organisation African Gong, a pan-African network that backs scientific and technological knowledge for social change and inclusion. She advises international bodies such as the UN, the European Commission and the UNESCO. She was recently awarded the Nat 2019 for Science Communication, awarded by the Barcelona Natural History Museum, Barcelona City Council and Government of Catalonia.
In Europe we have a very distorted image of what Africa is: we tend to see it as a single “country” that exports poor and desperate people to Europe.
It is funny that you raise this question, because it shows that nobody in Europe asks themselves where all the wealth surrounding them has come from. And it came, and still comes, from Africa precisely. A modern-day example: the electric vehicles that are becoming so fashionable in Europe use minerals extracted from mines in the Congo and Rwanda. History is repeating itself: Europe exploiting African resources.
Moreover, Europe is full of talent that came from Africa and is joining its teams, people who contribute ideas and knowledge. And that is enriching, being able to count on a heterogenous group, not only in terms of gender but also ethnic origin and culture and ways of viewing the world. Diversity makes science better! But knowledge leaving Africa and not returning is also a problem. It’s a real brain drain.
In fact, we must remember that Africa is still suffering the loss of potential and of human resources caused by slavery. Because colonialism was preceded by the slave trade, which meant that over the course of several centuries, millions of young people were taken away. And without them, there could be no development or innovation
You defend that a country’s democratic quality is linked to science communication.
Let me tell you something about my childhood. From a very young age my father transmitted to me, and my five siblings, the importance of science as a tool for social change. My father was a lawyer and heavily involved in Nigeria’s fight for independence. He held that science and technology were key for the advancement of the African nations and that science, furthermore, has the moral obligation of changing society. That is the spirit that was instilled into me and it’s what I defend. And to do this, science communication is essential.
In an ideal democracy, citizens having access to the most objective information possible is crucial, and, largely, they should access that objective information by acquiring scientific literacy, which gives them a certain sense of rationality, of analytical thinking, of cause and effect.
How is scientific literacy linked to the social literacy that you defend?
At African Gong we talk about social literacy, which is a synthesis of scientific and other types of literacy, like layers of knowledge.
A person with basic scientific literacy is someone who can think critically that “A causes B and so C”. Thus, if a politician or political party says “No, first comes C and then A”, the person can question that message. If you are capable of equipping citizens with analytical, rational thought, you increase the country’s democratic quality. And that’s the link between scientific and social literacy.
For example, a message spread widely now in Europe by far-right parties is that immigrants are stealing jobs from Europeans. And that is having an impact on society, due to a lack of social literacy. They are stealing your jobs, right? What jobs? Ah, the worst jobs, the worst paid ones, the ones with the worst conditions, the ones that have no employment contracts, the ones that nobody wants. Fine, next question: Do you want that job? No? But you are asserting that they are stealing our jobs… A capacity for analytical thinking is absolutely necessary.
How is it possible to equip citizens with that analytical thinking?
To start, it is necessary for them to acquire scientific literacy tools so that they can make informed decisions regarding their lives. For science to improve their quality of life overall, whether by helping them to decide what to vote in elections, or how to prevent diseases, or how to deal with all kinds of challenges. It is not that we want all young people to study or devote their lives to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths, but it is crucial that all societies have a basic level of education in mathematics and sciences.
But in Europe, which in theory has a good basic system of education, attitudes are also starting to abound that are against some scientific evidence.
In Europe, increasing numbers of people go to university and they decide not to vaccinate their children, and now there are measles epidemics in Italy and other countries. Or they become ill with cancer and choose to treat themselves with homeopathy. It may seem to be a paradox: informed people who opt to take an uninformed decision. But when you analyse it in a little more detail, you realise that it is proof that we are going backwards in terms of the basic scientific literacy that we used to have. We did have it, eh? But we have lost it. And that has been helped a lot by the social media networks and not very much by scientists.
What do you mean exactly?
In the West, since the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a certain type of complacency among scientists. We have ceased to be combative, to communicate science, to talk to society about science. We relax without realising that in life there are no vacancies and that if you don’t do something, then someone else will arrive and fill your place. Human knowledge is not static. What never happens is that suddenly the whole of society becomes educated and so we can relax and abandon the trenches. That is why it is so important that as scientists, engineers and researchers, we communicate science once more. But not from an arrogant and presumptuous stance, that considers society as stupid, empty containers in which to pour knowledge, something that happened for a long time. Because that is a mistake and it opens the door to pseudosciences.
Another of the backbones of your personal fight is gender equality in the scientific sphere. What can we do in this respect?
Well, to start, we can fight the stereotypes that we inculcate into girls from a very young age telling them that they cannot study science, that makes them choose, somehow, between being good at maths or being girls. That is how, when socialising, they are perversely compensated by the system. Did you know that Marilyn Monroe had a very high IQ? But all her life she played the dumb blonde, because they made her believe that that was the only way she would ever get to be an actress.
And that has a lot to do with the crisis in STEM vocations among women, because they are disciplines with a completely non-feminine image. For that reason, for me it is very important that a black girl anywhere can look at me and think “Wow! A chemical engineer can look like that!” We have to give young girls real, genuine models that can inspire them. That is the only way we will achieve a paradigm shift.
It is usually said that technological development and globalisation always lead to improved quality of life and to the creation of wealth.
That is a false premise. Science has the potential to change people’s lives for the good. But as occurs in any other sphere of life, whether the arts or cinema, science is also open to exploitation, to inequality, to abuse. Let’s be honest!
Part of what feeds the inequality and the disadvantages is the lack of inclusion. If there were, for example, equality between genders, if in all research laboratories, in all research programmes, there were 50% men and 50% women, do you believe that we would see some of the things that are now being prioritised in research? Of course not!
What are you referring to?
Let’s take the example of artificial intelligence, where many laboratories are made up only of men. If we look at what things are being prioritised, we find sex robots. Who needs those? How does that contribute to society? It doesn’t. It’s crazy. The same occurs in medical research. Recently, there have been various studies that have shown that in trials with medicines and drugs, only male rats are used, or the majority are males and very few females. What does that say to you about their potential efficacy in women? The inequality originates from the source itself.
And then there is who has access, who can afford it. If we talk about access to energy, which is a field I am greatly involved in: what are people who have two dollars a day to live on doing now, without access to energy? They are cutting down trees to cook and to keep themselves warm. And that leads to enormous problems with deforestation, not to mention the contamination generated by the smoke, respiratory health problems, etc. What does that do for the environment? How can we apply subsidies? How do we take scientific advancement to homes? Nobody talks about that; all the scientific research and business models are now centred on how to provide access to energy for people who can pay for it.
You mention the climate crisis and, in fact, there are increasingly more voices warning about it. Does it have different implications for Africa and for Europe? What solutions would you propose?
It is clear that we are going to need more energy, because Asia, Africa and Latin America are growing, but we cannot allow ourselves to continue with the same model with the current climate crisis. From Europe and North America, you look at the situation with fear.
But I think that to resolve this dilemma, we need to begin with an honest conversation and it would be about the diverse conflicts of interests that exist.
For example, the Western world has used fossil fuels to have cheaper access to energy and it is the basis on which it has developed. With what moral authority is it now going to say to the Chinese that they cannot do the same? Who is going to be willing to pay 30% more in their bill so that developing countries do not use fossil fuels for their development? Are Europe and North America prepared to give resources to those countries for their development? What you want is to keep the money. But the fact is that somebody has to pay. That is the greatest enigma of all time.
I am not surprised that young people are tired and that they are going out onto the streets to protest in defence of the planet and against climate crisis. They are tired of our lies and obfuscation. Governments have many other priorities, and they think in the short term, investing in what is most profitable for them in terms of votes. And saving the planet is not something that business managers put into their annual balance: shareholders want money, their dividends. That’s the world that we are living in.
After talking with you, there are not many reasons left for optimism
I am very optimistic.
Because optimism comes from understanding processes and systems. I am the most optimistic person because I know why we are where we are. And once that you understand that, you can try to do something. The problem lies in how to mobilise society, to shift from where we are to where the solutions are. Until we manage to do that, we can keep on talking but nothing will ever change.
Interview by Cristina Sáez
Photographs: MCNB/J.M. Llobet