Be part of the global and national “voice” of science: G200 YF, SAYAS, ASLP, GYA and other acronyms

In current global economic and political conditions, the role of socially responsible science is stressed for its importance. To my mind, it is every scientist’s obligation to join the global voice in the quest towards sustainable solutions and a better future for the generations to come. Without even realising I was doing it, I have been part of international movements the last four years that has made me hopeful for the future: young people with potential, dream and willingness to fight against all hurdles and challenges.

To start with and as a good academic that follows rules, the first time I use an acronym I should expand and define it, so G200 YF: G200 Youth Forum SAYAS: South African Young Academy of Science; GYA: Global Young Academy; ASLP: Africa Science Leadership Programme.

The first time I was part of an “acronym” was back in 2015 at the G200 Youth Forum 2015 that took place at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. To put myself into perspective, I was fresh out of my PhD, only four years after and I was an early career researcher. Having little to no understanding of the science community, having very little experience in multidisciplinary projects and of course, little confidence in myself, in retrospect, I realise I did not exploit the opportunity in full. I made my presentation, discussed about my paper, and participated in sessions relevant to my research field, met a few interesting people but that’s where it stopped. If I could turn back time, I would have been more active in my interactions and engagements; I would have raised my hand and taken more responsibilities that week; and I would not have been self-conscious to start a discussion with others.

A few years fast forward, in 2017, the SAYAS Call for members came into my hands (by the way it is open now for 2019 until the 31st of May). To be completely honest, my first thought was “how do they define science?” – The typical and continuous debate of the complementarity or competition between “hard” and social sciences. So, being a true academic, I spent time reading on the definition of science: here from the Oxford Dictionarythe intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”.

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Oh phew I am also a scientist!!!! I applied…and I got in. My first year started and I had made the most common mistake in these cases: I thought that being a member of an Academy is the destination and the end of the journey. Wrong! It is the beginning of the journey. In the last few years in SAYAS, I met inspiring individuals and I had discussions that challenged my traditional way of thinking. “Exploiting” in a way my passion to provide a channel for the youth’s voice to the society, I accepted to continue the effort of my fellow SAYAS member, Prof Aliza Le Roux, and took over the editor’s position of the SAYAS Blog.

A few months later, I received an email about the Global Young Academy (GYA). At this point, I should mention that without the support of my own institution I would not even KNOW of all these opportunities, let alone apply or being successful at them. Of course, reading about the GYA I realised that we are talking about a completely different game now. With a “when in doubt, apply” mindset, I applied and voila!, I got accepted. This time, I was more prepared and knew that this is the beginning of a new journey.

However, here also, I fell in the next most usual “trap”. I wanted to participate in everything; I wanted to hear about everything and have my say in everything; the working groups were many and all had (and have) so many interesting activities. Receiving all those emails overwhelmed me and unfortunately missing the AGM in 2018 did not particularly help me. An email to – then- GYA co-chair – Prof Tolullah Oni expressing my feeling of overwhelm and she knew whom I should talk to. And he was right here, at the University of Pretoria. Meeting Prof Bernard Slippers, one of the founding members of GYA, made a difference – a coffee for an hour and I put so many things in perspective. I still felt that I wanted to participate in every single opportunity given but now I had an idea on how to do so. And I promised I would NOT miss the next AGM!!!!

A few months later, Prof Slippers introduced me to the Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP) of Future Africa firstly as an observer in a meeting. The excitement and enthusiasm of the fellows that have been in the programme intrigued me. What have they seen that I had not? And that was enough for me to decide to apply. I was selected among the 20 people from all over the African continent that came together in March 2019 to discuss the future of the continent’s science community.

2019
The African continent’s potential is great! 

The programme changed me personally and academically. From a promotion of science point of view, we were introduced to leadership concepts and practices, science communication skills training, profiling of ourselves within a team environment, and a number of other tools.

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My colleagues have taught me so many things in this week and I am proud to call them my family – my ASLP5.1 family (as we were the 5th cohort of the programme). Changing our mentality from focusing on the problems we face into converting them into questions for pursuing possible solutions is not easy in the work environment nor in our private life, but the ASLP facilitators made sure all participants understand that value and will at least make an effort in the future. Our common vision of an African continent that becomes the place to be will forever stay within my heart.

Not even a month from an emotional “goodbye and see you again” to my ASLP family, I found myself in Halle, Germany for the GYA AGM in 2019. If I thought the GYA electronic communication and the ASLP were life-changing experiences, I had not seen anything yet. 200 people from all over the world joined “forces” to discuss issues of enlightenment, solutions for sustainable future, among others, and what’s more important: the group does not stay in discussions, all for action to take towards change. If that is not inspiring, I do not know what is.

 

To conclude, from this journey that hopefully, it has just begun, thus far, I have learned that scientists cannot complain that society and policymakers do not hear our voice. They will not hear our voice if we sit in our office and talk to each other. To maximise the scientific community’s impact, we need to organize ourselves and at the same time, we need to open the door to society to engage with us. Also, working alone and in silos does not work anymore – when did it ever work? The planet faces challenges that old-fashioned approaches have failed to tackle. Global and National Academies, whether young or senior, as well as programmes such as the ASLP provide the platform for collaboration, engagement and exchange of experiences and ideas. They also provide experiences that can widen one’s horizon and create open-minded and critical thinking scientists.

The constant hunt for research projects, writing proposals for research grants, the competitive nature of some colleagues, as well as the inherent nature of scientists are all reasons that the journey in academia can be a lonely one. But it does not have to – the sense of belonging when being a member in one or the other organised community can improve a scientist’s confidence. The interactions with people from different backgrounds and cultures that, however, have the same challenges, same aspirations, and the same need to change the world is comforting and inspiring at the same time.

So, if you are a young emerging researcher or a PhD candidate that wonders if this is for you, you will never know until you experience it. Apply, get accepted, and go for it. For those that say there is nothing like this in their country: well, there is your challenge – we will all support you and assist in starting a young academy for example or an association (part of my journey was also to initiate the creation of the South African Association for Energy Economics (SAAEE) which would not have happened if I did not value the idea of community).

Finally, if you have applied and you have not made it, why don’t you apply again? Every year’s cohorts are different – and if you need advice or just to discuss your application, you know where to find me. If this is something you really want, don’t give up – timing is crucial. Thinking back, if I went to the 2018 AGM, before the ASLP, I might not have gone with the most appropriate mindset to receive an offer to the experience overall (see my experience with the G200 Youth Summit).

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Now, I know, for sure, I will never be the same person (academic, colleague, friend, sister, wife, mother) after meeting and interacting with tens of different people within the last couple of years. I know the impact on my life is immense; now I am looking forward to the specific impact I can make to the lives of others.

Paradoxes of The International Day of the Girl

Srila Roy, Wits University

The United Nations created the International Day of the Girl on October 11, 2012, to draw attention to the vulnerabilities and threats that girls still face in many parts of the world today. It has also become a day to celebrate the resilience and potential of girls. Many of us partook in the celebrations and indeed, we should. But we should also be cautious about what we are celebrating.

Let me share a few things that struck me about #DayoftheGirl on Twitter:

The girls in view were overwhelmingly from what we used to call the ‘Third World’, and is today referred to as the Global South. I am referring, of course, to the countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, which are still considered to be ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ in relation to the advanced industrialised economies of the West/North. This should come as no surprise. The face of poverty has always been from this part of the world and more so than not, female. While it is of course the case that challenges remain in these countries, it is also the case that gender inequalities are on the rise globally. In order to mark the International Day of the Girl, The Guardian reported from the results of a study that showed how poorly the world’s largest economy, the USA, fared in this regard:

‘The US came 32nd in the index due to its low representation of women in parliament, high teenage pregnancy rates and its record on maternal deaths. Fourteen women died per 100,000 live births in the US in 2015, a similar number to Uruguay and Lebanon’.

Austerity policies in the North have been driving up child poverty with the UK having some of the highest levels of food insecurity amongst children, both boys and girls. Many poor countries fare better, like Rwanda that has the highest proportion of female MPs in the world, and Nepal that has the same lower-secondary school completion rate for girls as Spain. This is just some data that should make us think about gender inequalities across the world as opposed to the tendency to associate poverty and underdevelopment with girls in some parts of the world alone. It should also make us think of inequalities as affecting young people as a whole.

Some, but #notallgirls?

Partly, our news and social media is still dominated by images of some and not all girls because their plight is often linked to the ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ of the place that they belong to. So, the other thing that struck me about #DayoftheGirl was the number of posts on child marriage. Indeed, ‘traditional’ practices like child marriage are often treated as the number one evil for the lower status of girls in non-Western contexts. However, as I have shown in a recent academic article, the practice of marrying off girls at a young age is often motivated by structural causes – poverty, the lack of mobility and resources, the lack of viable alternatives like education and employment – than it is by religion or custom. And yet ‘culture’ becomes an easy substitute for understanding complex power relations and the causes for the low status of women and girls in the Global South.

Education is presented as the chief alternative to marriage and for improving the lives of girls more generally. However, there are strong structural inequalities that mean education alone is not a magic bullet: poor quality education,  the lack of requisite skills and training, and the sheer size of the educated unemployed population. Without a wider commitment towards redistributive policies, education provides no ideal solution. The employment solutions presented by development organizations— microfinance, income-generation schemes, etc.—are market-based, invariably piecemeal, intermittent, and low-paid. They often end up deepening rather than reducing the vulnerability of young women in an unfair and unsafe labour market. Ironically, the same agents that perpetuate inequalities – national governments, international aid agencies and corporation – are the loudest voices championing the rights of girls on the International Day of the Girl.

The final thing that struck me on the day was the instrumental logic behind celebrating girls. By instrumental logic, I mean the ways in which the empowerment of girls (and women) come to be linked to larger goals – everything from advancing the family and the community to the nation.

Thus, we have Michelle Obama saying ‘no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women…’ to UNICEF tweeting ‘when girls do better, we all do better’. Other rallying cries included ‘Empowering a girl child is empowering our nation’ and ‘We must continue to empower women & girls because when they succeed we all benefit!’

These kinds of slogans have acquired commonsensical status in our times. We know that ‘investing’ in girls and women will help when it comes to key development indicators – health, education, poverty – but also that such an investment makes sound business sense. Corporates like Nike and Coca-Cola have entered the field of development in order to capitalise on the hidden potentials of girls. ‘By delaying child marriage and early birth for one million girls, Bangladesh could potentially add $69billion to the national income over these girls’ lifetimes’.

Whether corporatised or not, development becomes tied to economic growth and gain, and increasingly for private profit. In other words, institutions and agents are less concerned with women’s empowerment and rights than they are with the ‘benefits’ that such an investment might return to them. Surely, this logic of ‘investment’ and ‘benefits’ goes against the basic tenants behind the idea of celebrating the International Day of the Girl.

As anthropologist Kathryn Moeller — whose new book critiques Nike’s development programme — writes, ‘Girls’ education should be promoted because girls matter in and of themselves, rather than because of their potential value as instruments of development change’.