Can a PhD save the world?

I, like so many of us, always wanted to be a superhero. As a child, I dreamed of being Ironman. I was going to be a genius billionaire playboy   philanthropist who would bring about world peace, save the world from alien invasions and use my technology to develop cleaner sources of energy. I was also going to fly and shoot beams out of my hands!

My dream changed as I got older. In high school, I went from wanting to be like Ironman with the suit to wanting to be a virologist in a hazmat suit curing Ebola in West Africa. At the start of my postgraduate career, I went from wanting to be a virologist in West Africa to being a mycologist studying the fungi that kill trees. I pursued a PhD to help the world!

BOOM_the scientist_2

Now that I’m here, I feel like my research won’t have as much impact as someone else researching safer energy or a vaccine for HIV. In truth, many PhDs probably don’t think their work matters or that they are making a REAL difference.

Number of PhDs awarded in the USIf you look at the number of PhDs in the United States between 1957 and 2016, you’ll see an almost tenfold increase in the number of doctorates awarded—a trend that exists in many other countries too. While there are more people walking around with PhDs today than there were in the 1950s, it hasn’t helped solve any of the major problems facing the world in 1957 or today. War, inequality, climate change, biodiversity loss and clean energy were all problems in 1957 and are still today (in some cases, even worse). If we adopt an extremely simplistic view, it would seem that all the PhDs in the world are not having much of an impact. That makes me feel worse. Fortunately, it’s a very simplistic view.

We understand a lot more about the world today than we did in 1957. The purpose of a PhD, among other things, is to generate knowledge. Knowledge drives humanity forward; it doesn’t matter if it comes from studying the migratory patterns of birds, assessing the importance of cultural heritage in the 21st century, or developing a new vaccine for HIV. All this research generates knowledge which allows us to understand ourselves, our world and the universe better. And this knowledge is the starting point to effect change and growth. Because, in the right hands, knowledge can be used to change policy, improve education, create technology that makes the world a better place.

Jane Goodall summed it up perfectly: “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help shall all be saved.”

So, this knowledge – however big, however small – has to reach beyond the thesis. If you think of the size of our global problems – migration, war, disease, climate change — science communication and engagement with society has never been more important. But it’s a difficult road, trying to communicate science to non-scientists…

Bill-Nye-Saves-the-WorldEven someone like Bill Nye the Science Guy battles. His show, “Bill Nye Saves the World,” which debuted in 2017, seeks to tackle the anti-science sentiment in the US by educating through entertainment. It has been met with a lot of criticism (obviously) and hasn’t received the wonderful ratings it was looking for.  Niel deGrasse Tyson’s show, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” was Emmy nominated and praised for its success (mainly amongst space enthusiasts). Tyson won the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for the show and its promotion of science. Unfortunately, it only reached 1.3% of all U.S. households. Scientists seem to be famous among scientists and science enthusiasts, which is not a large enough part of the population or a part we need to be communicating more with.

science communication wrong_2

We can’t expect a handful of scientists to do all the communicating. To draw in a larger audience, we need to speak to a more diverse audience, of different races, religions, countries, political views, etc. To do that, we need very diverse scientists to present science issues that unite global audiences around shared values and what we can do to address them. Here lies an opportunity to become the next science hero, like Lee Berger, Jill Farant or Nox Makunga… only better, a science superhero. Become the Ironman or Wonder Woman of the science universe and use your PhD powers for good. Talk and help save the world.


Ideal research in un-ideal environments

I’ve been following the tragedy happening in the North West province, regarding the collapse of the health services due to the community and trade union protests. Health systems are the stage where the impact of corruption and bad leadership plays out very dramatically, because they cost people’s lives. What was a trade union-led slow-down of health services in the province has escalated to full-on community strikes that shut down roads and health facilities.

Mahikeng service delivery protest
Welcome to the hospital. Source (Photo by Oupa Nkosi).


North West hits close to home because it is the focus of my research. I am investigating how we can measure all the elements that come together to improve maternal health outcomes, including community factors. Although I love evidence and metrics, they always show you the picture in retrospect. They show you something that has already happened. They can help model future trajectories for sure, but those depend on certain conditions that in turn depend on the whims of individuals in positions of power. And they can tell you what needs to be done but can’t make people do it. And they are not empowering to the person they are supposed to benefit, the patient. Because measurements don’t equip a patient for dealing with the unexpected challenges that spring up in the public health system.

Mahikeng protest
The worst affected are those who need health services the most. Source (Photo by Oupa Nkosi)

In this case I use the word “unexpected” very generously. As the reports state, the trouble in the North West has been brewing for years.  And it now manifests in a health system where the budget was overspent but few of its targets met. Where prices of medicines are inflated. Where money is divested from hiring more nurses and doctors to fraudulent projects. Where the frustrated reaction of health workers that feel powerless leaves patients without medicines and being discharged prematurely from hospital. Clinics closed. Patients stranded. So I may research the effect of lack of services on health trajectories all I want, and sure enough contribute to the “evidence vault”. But I can’t make people not award contracts to their friends, and that makes me angry.

I became a public health researcher to make a difference, but instances like these make you think hard about how to do that. We are all pieces of a puzzle, I understand. But nothing makes you feel more powerless than the self-interested actions of powerful individuals who can adopt or not adopt whatever guideline you come up with. It’s a reminder of just how embedded health systems are in society – and how a researcher therefore has to be embedded in society-wide action in order to make a difference.

So I’ve been looking for the links between my academic research and those people and organisations that play a more active role. I’ve learned about organizations that track stock-outs, that advocate for rural health, that are on the ground now as we speak, monitoring the situation. They are active behind the scenes, working to entrench real change in the health system. Maybe in the next few weeks I will figure out how to align myself with these actors, beyond just a Twitter follow. Maybe the hopelessness will subside.