What am I doing in Seoul chaperoning three female secondary school science students and one employee of the FCT Science Board? We are at the 2013 Molecular Frontiers Symposium, being hosted by the Molecular Frontiers Foundation (MFF), Korea University (KU) and the Nantung Technology University, Singapore, learning about the science problems that would need to be solved in the future.
Twenty flying hours and less than six hours of sleep later, we joined some 600 plus students from South Korea, Japan, Singapore and the United States at the beautiful KU campus. Courtesy of KU, we get to spend two days with four Nobel Prize winners, including the 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Arieh Wasrshel, exploring unanswered science questions. The Frontiers Foundation was founded in 2006 to focus on identifying breakthroughs in science and to stimulate young people’s interest in science and each year, they hold a symposium for young people. Last year Singapore hosted, next year it will most likely be China. It is not by accident that there are at least seven Asian universities among the top 100 in the world.
In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest nations in Asia and considered to have a lot less potential than the newly independent Nigeria. Fast-forward 50 years and any attempt to compare the two countries would be akin to trying to compare apples with oranges – though they share basic similarities, they are completely different. While Nigeria is at the bottom of every human development index, South Korea has seen massive investments and development in education (everything conspires to make us think of ASUU and our broken down education sector), innovation and the economy. Yet South Korea has had a turbulent political history scarred with coups, assassinations, dictators and corruption, just like us.
When Dr. Yuhyun Park – one of the 25 2013 Eisenhower Fellows – asked me to help make this year’s symposium “more global” with the attendance of three or four female students from Nigeria, I was excited. I decided to follow the advice to start charity at home: the girls of the FCT would be the beneficiaries of this opportunity. That was the easy part. How would we select these girls and provide some mileage for the Nigerian Women Trust Fund where I work? After all, the only reason Dr. Park had approached me was because of the work we do in trying to enhance the representation of women in decision-making. A big part of this is the education and leadership development of girls and young women (16-25 years of age), in order to prepare an available pool of women who will be making decisions in the future, much like the Molecular Frontiers is trying to do with young people and science.
We decided a quiz and essay writing competition for girls from four public and four private schools would be the best way to be fair in our selection and to ensure that the girls link their opportunity to gender and the importance of science. The eight schools provided their best five science students, who sat for a quiz and the 10 girls with the highest scores wrote an essay on the importance of science to girls and women. The entire exercise was a revelation – pleasant, for the dedication of the FCT Science Board in collaborating to invite the schools and set up the quiz, and worrying for the quality of writing of senior secondary school students. Yesterday, regardless of the topic, from photosynthesis to DNA and from biomaterials to food, some of the most well-known scientists in the world agreed on the following things: One, follow your passion. Two, big questions get big answers and three, be guided by the desire to improve the quality of life. The first and the last are pretty self-explanatory, but the idea of big questions and big answers is intriguing, particularly because Nigeria is the type of place that provokes questions no one wants to answer.
Situating my questions within the process that took us to Seoul and what we are experiencing, why has South Korea moved so far ahead of Nigeria, even when they have suffered military rule, corruption and dictatorship? What would it take to steadily and consistently expose young Nigerians to science and innovation? Can a country have a deliberate strategy to groom Nobel laureates? How much should Nigeria be spending on research and development? Can universities, think-tanks and the private sector invest in science R&D? What science symposiums for Nigerian science students have the Federal Ministry of Science & Technology, or any of the premier universities organised in the last five years? Do any African presidents have a chief science and innovation adviser? If it is as Prof. Obaji complained last week during the USOSA education summit that most universities do not have functioning toilets, can any university in Nigeria aspire to attract a renowned academic, who sits on the Nobel Prize science committee as vice chancellor? And finally, what is it about the way we raise or teach our children that makes it near impossible for them to ask questions or think critically? And could this inability/reticence have anything to do with the quality of our followership?
When we landed in Seoul, I asked the girls – all of whom had never been out of Nigeria until we left Abuja on Saturday – what they thought so far about our international airport in Abuja and the Incheon Airport in Seoul and they burst out laughing. I got the message: no comparison! Let’s hope this experience, if nothing else teaches them to ask the most basic ‘why’ questions about the state of our country and our lives, because it is only when enough of Nigeria’s 170 million people start asking the big hard questions that we will get the right answers.