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World’s perception of science matters

16 Nov 2020 / 12:37 H.

THE implications of a world without science have become all too clear in 2020 as nations experience the impact of a global pandemic. Let’s take the role technology has played in response to the pandemic for consideration. In Southeast Asia, for example, countries like Malaysia and Singapore were quick to adopt new-age technologies such as contact tracing apps and virtual health consultations to maintain public health and safety.

The above scenario clearly demonstrates the importance of science and innovation and its relevancy in today’s constantly changing circumstances. A similar sentiment is reflected in the findings from the second wave of the annual State of Science Index (Sosi) by 3M, called the 2020 Pandemic Pulse, which was fielded in July and August, about six months into the pandemic.

Against the backdrop of Covid-19, 89% of those surveyed trust science; 86% trust scientists; and 77% are more likely to agree that science needs more funding. Moreover, 92% of global respondents believe actions should follow science to contain the global pandemic, revealing another measure of trust in science. It seems that for the first time, there is a renewed global appreciation for science and the relevance it brings to our everyday lives.

New superheroes

A world that has been increasingly sceptical of science seems to be waking up to its importance. According to Sosi, for the first time in three years, only 28%* of those surveyed remain sceptical of science (*denoting a seven-point drop in scepticism in less than a year). Never in the history of Sosi has there been such a notable trend reversal.

Globally, people are beginning to rally around healthcare workers and scientists as society’s new superheroes. This includes the heroic trio of public health experts – US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr Anthony Fauci, New Zealand’s Health Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Malaysia’s Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah (pix). Instead of cloaks, these superheroes don PPE and the superpowers they possess are medical expertise, backed by science.

Sustainability and science

While delivering healthcare solutions continues to be a priority in light of the pandemic (80%), people are now looking at science to solve critical issues related to the environment and social justice, including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) equity and accessible STEM education for all. In fact, according to Sosi, 82% of those surveyed agreed that there are negative consequences to a world that does not value science.

This evolving image of science is a key theme to emerge from findings of Sosi. Although the world is far from sharing a singular view of science, there is no doubt that people are warming up to the fact that science makes our lives better.

While there is increased trust and appreciation of science, there are still gaps and challenges that need to be addressed so that the next generation of scientists can be more diverse and better engaged to truly address global challenges.

Barriers to STEM education

While the pro-science sentiment is much stronger today, too many people have been discouraged from pursuing science, especially the younger generation. Sosi reports that younger individuals (28%) are three times more likely to have been discouraged to pursue science as compared to baby boomers (9%).

Perception matters. There are several negative first impressions that students often harbour when it comes to pursuing STEM subjects. This could revolve around lack of access, confidence, as well as gender and racial inequality that decreases their aspiration towards a career in STEM despite the presence of a support system.

For instance, the Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian governments spend 20% of state budgets on improving their education systems and implementing STEM subjects into their curriculum. Yet, many Southeast Asian students still feel a disconnect between STEM subjects as taught in the classroom and its practicality in the real world.

In 2018, only less than half of Malaysian students (44%) chose STEM subjects as they could not see how science played a role in their lives and only 33.1% of students decided to pursue STEM fields in Indonesia. Meanwhile, the Philippines ranked the second lowest among 79 countries in both mathematical and scientific literacy in a programme for International Student Assessment organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. While STEM is now starting to gain attraction in Vietnam, scarcity of STEM books and other science materials, the lack of proper training and innovative thinking amongst teachers are some challenges that STEM education is facing in this otherwise rapidly developing market.

Driving employability and innovation

Perhaps one way to break negative stereotypes surrounding STEM education in Southeast Asia is by enhancing skills based and practical learning at the school level for STEM studies. For example, utilising digital teaching tools like videos combined with hands-on training and practical projects can improve student interest and participation in STEM studies.

Another key driver to STEM studies is showcasing the diverse potential for career advancement through science and technology. Southeast Asia today is one of the fastest growing markets with a potential for more technological advancement. With new opportunities arising within these markets, there will always be a demand for an equally qualified workforce.

For example, Thailand has aspirations to become a developed nation by 2035 with the aim to make innovative strides in the field of artificial intelligence, robotics, biosciences, aerospace and other new pillars of what is frequently termed as the world’s fourth industrial revolution. The Philippines on the other hand, is already moving towards the establishment of its first smart city and Indonesia has been bookmarked as the regional technology hub, already giving birth to disruptive technology-based start-ups such as Traveloka and Gojek.

As these markets gravitate towards technology maturation, STEM-related studies can help to produce skill ready and qualified graduates equipped to enter the industry with a fresh perspective and zeal for innovation.

3M calls for collaborations and shared responsibility to pave a path for consistent growth and innovation in science

Whether it is finding new sustainable solutions to solve critical global challenges or encouraging more of the younger generation to pursue STEM studies, collaboration amongst governments, private businesses, academics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is imperative to drive scientific growth.

Sosi reveals that 53% of respondents believe that amid major challenges in 2020, corporations should prioritise collaborating with governments for solutions to global challenges – second only to preparing for future pandemics (61%).

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. At 3M, we’ve made a number of recent announcements that dovetail with the priorities people want companies to solve. Every year, 3Mgives runs an international competitive grant to support the key pillars of Community, Environment and Education.

In 2019, for the 3Mgives Education grant category alone, 3M has invested a total of US$150,500 to advance equitable outcomes for underrepresented groups in Southeast Asian. This has been made possible by actively collaborating with local NGOs and organisations involved in education. In Vietnam, US$22,000 was awarded to Loreto Vietnam, in Malaysia, US$17,500 was granted to Teach for Malaysia, and Doctorabbit Indonesia received US$26,000. Meanwhile, the Philippines’ The Mind Museum accepted US$50,000, and the Science Centre Singapore received US$35,000.

By forging partnerships with these local education champions, we were able to develop impactful programmes that not only renew interest in STEM but also bring us closer to addressing education inequality.

If there’s anything we have learned about the future of science from Sosi, it’s that the tides are changing for the better. As responsible global citizens, it is our shared duty to ensure that science’s moment becomes long-lasting so we can create a more sustainable future.

Kevin McGuigan is 3M managing director, SEA region.

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