“How do we know if and when science makes a difference?”

I was recently invited by the South African Journal of Science to report on a webinar held on the 4th of August 2021 as part of their participation in science week. Science week is an annual event which aims at making more people aware of science, and to recruit more learners and students to pursue further education and careers in the sciences. It reminds me of the annual Grahamstown Arts and Culture Festival which also aims at raising awareness of the arts. I attended one in 2016. Epic! Just as exciting as the science week webinar.

Enough with the comparison. Let me get back to my invitation by the South African Journal of Science. Their webinar was entitled “How do we know if and when science makes a difference?” Provocative, right? You would think the question needs some length of scientific understanding and engagement to answer. But truly it does not. Listening to the various speakers making their presentations, I asked myself, how did we meet today? What made this prestigious scientific webinar possible in a time when gatherings are prohibited by the government in its attempt to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without any difficulty, these two words popped up in my mind ‘science and technology’. We met, while in the comforts of our own spaces; both socially and geographically distanced. We ‘gathered’ and discussed the aforementioned topic. Our meeting was made possible by internet communication which is enabled by science and technology.  

But I suppose I am saying all these from a simplistic point of view, seeing that I am not a scientist but a literary scholar. However, I have seen science in action. For example, most of the food we consume today is genetically modified. Some is even processed to keep it fresh for a longer period. Think of a can of fish that goes for so many years still preserved and fresh, and think about a fresh tuna that you cooked two days ago and it is only dustbin friendly right now and not edible. What makes the canned fish last longer? Is it not scientific chemicals? Is that not science in action?

However, I guess the question goes beyond my simplistic view of science and technology as key role players in simplifying our lives. To ask about science and technology’s contribution to humanity is, for me, to ask what makes us who and what we are. One of the presenters spoke about the importance of nutrition and food security in South Africa and Africa at large. This was in the context of technology, alluding to how technology continues to play a key role in Agriculture. During this captivating presentation, I kept thinking of the many technological ways some South African farmers have adapted to ensure food security. These methods include Hydroponic farming.

I have had the pleasure of once seeing such a farm. Wonders! It really demonstrates exactly how science makes our lives so easy and secured. In a hydroponic farm, the farmer is in control of their crops. The farmer controls the amount of nutrients the crops receive, this means the chances of losing crops is lessened. The farmer also controls the temperature and most importantly he/she has the freedom to plant any crop at any time without the restrictions of seasons, unlike in traditional farming. All these is made possible by scientific measures. If this is not science in action, I do not know what is. Shallow and simplistic as my response to the question posed by the webinar may be, I tried showing you that we can hardly do without scientific innovation. I am not suggesting we are technopoly, but we rely so much on science.  

Value versus material: My academic qualifications against my material wealth

Earlier this year I obtained my Master of Arts Degree and began making arrangements for my PhD registration. I had anticipated to register during the 2021 academic year. This was before I was offered three part-time jobs in three different universities. If I took these jobs, I thought to myself, combined they would make up a salary equivalent to a full-time lecturing job, and I would finally enjoy some measure of upward economic mobility. The thought of so many job offers within a very short space of time was thrilling for me.  It made me quickly think a PhD would do so much more.

However, in accepting these job offers, I did not think about the work load, and other factors that would affect my ability to be productive. I thought only of material accumulation. This for me was the materialization of my Masters degree. I deserve it, I was convinced it is my big break after the two long and tiring years I spent working on my Masters. Ironically, in a month I barely make R15 000 and it makes me question this materialization and the need for a PhD. Although, I am cognizant of all the factors which go into part-time staff’s remunerations, when one does not see the materialization of qualifications they quickly become oblivious and indifferent to these other factors. And this is me right now.

Thus, I am now conflicted, I am at limbo. I wonder if there is a need to pursue a PhD when I am unable to afford a small car, and a proper apartment while working for 3 universities simultaneously. I am weighing the value of my education against its materialization, my education level against my buying power. If my academic qualifications do not materialize into desired upward economic mobility, does it mean my education does not have value? Can and should the value of my education be measured in terms of the material accumulation and upward economic mobility it affords me?

Does it mean that the inability of my education to materialize as I had hoped renders it ‘valueless or unimportant? I suppose my question is, how do we value or at least weigh up academic qualifications? Are they valued by the money one earns upon successfully obtaining a certain degree? Is it about the skills one acquires to improve the way things are done and to contribute significantly to society’s growth, and actively participating in the economy? Is it the accumulation of knowledge which allows one to be in the service of humanity? Or is there something else, perhaps an unknown scale which determines the value of one’s qualification.

After it is all said and done, I know getting a PhD coupled with the experience I have already obtained in the teaching and learning space of higher institutions of education will come in handy someday. But how do I fully engage myself in academics for the next three years studying towards a Doctoral degree when a masters degree I was hopeful will keep me afloat barely does.  In pursuing my masters degree, I was worried by the future, which is now, today. Now I must worry again about the future. Am I in a rat race? When will the future that I hope for come?