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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflecting and Looking Forward

2011 will go down as momentous. Economies tumbled, dictators fell and Kim Jong Il died.

2012 will be will be eventful. We will have consequential elections in China, Russia and the United States of America.

As always we will have to deal with range of disasters, both natural like earthquakes and man made like famine. More dictators will fall and more economies will spin into turmoil.

At a personal level we all will have our moments of triumph, deep hurt and grief. And for some of us we will come close or encounter our own mortality.

And to you all, here is 2012 with some tears and lots of laughter.

But it is a wonderful world, and its all we have.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Roman Politics and the Triumph of Christianity

For Christendom, it is that time of the year, again.

There was no room in the Inn and behold a child was born in a manger. Wise men and humble shepherds bowed in adoration. But with the birth of a child, an empire was threatened and a King sought to commit murder.

For many centuries, the Romans worshipped legion of deities – gods and goddesses. Many of these deities came from the lands conquered through the ever-expanding Roman empire.

Two religions, Christianity and Judaism refused to honor “Roman gods” and idolize Roman emperors. As a result, Jews and Christians endured much hardship and relentless persecutions for centuries. Famous Christian martyrs of this period include Saint John and Saint Peter.

In the 4th century, God sent a vision of light at midday and an Emperor was converted to Christianity. Emperor Constantine adopted God’s symbol (the intersection of the Greek letter chi and rho) and wore it against every hostile power he faced.

After his vision, he immediately declared Christianity legal in the Edict of Milan. He completely abandoned paganism and put his full force of favor towards advancing the cause of the Church of Christ. He commissioned the construction of several grand cathedrals and emboldened Christians to worship openly in ancient Rome.

Constantine also made Sunday an official Roman holiday so that more people could attend church, and made churches tax-exempt.

He made December 25th, the birthday of the unconquered pagan Sun god, the official holiday. Today we celebrate the days as Christmas –the birthday of Jesus. His mother, Helen, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and began excavations to recover artifacts in the city. This popularized the tradition of pilgrimages in Christianity.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Towards a breakthrough in Science Education

In this week’s editorial Bruce Alberts Editor-in-Chief of Science yearns for a breakthrough in teaching and learning of science. He writes, “perhaps, Science might one day be able to highlight the striking results of a large “clinical trial” in science education as our Breakthrough of the Year, reporting the clear benefits to students inspired by a carefully designed, hands-on, inquiry-based exploration of the world observes that we live in an age where “science denial” has become fashionable”.

Scientists and science education scholars have been hard at work grappling with the search for novel and innovative ways of teaching science. There is a broad consensus among scientists and teachers of science on the need for a scientific approach to science education.

Here is a snippet of what I consider frontier thinking that will deliver the yearnings of Bruce Alberts.

The practice of science is invariably an encounter of ill-structured problems that can have multiple causal paths and hence multiple approaches to solutions. To approach such problems, unscrambling through “higher-order” mental processes such as analysis, synthesis, and abstraction are vital. Creative thinking—the most complex and abstract of the higher-order cognitive skills can allow unscrambling of problems and produce solutions through unconventional non-classical insights.

However, we teach science in colleges and lower levels as if problems that require understanding and application of science fall neatly into a pre-ordained singular pathway to a correct solution.

We seldom think of science as a creative process and the scientist as a creative entrepreneur. There is therefore very little learning of any higher order cognitive skills.

In a sample of 77 undergraduate life sciences given by 50 different professors, less than 1% of items in the assessment required students to apply analytical, synthesis or abstraction skills. It is therefore not surprising that only circa one fourth of US college graduates possess the cognitive skills necessary to solve conceptual problems.

Admittedly, creativity is a complex, multi component construct and, therefore, is not easy to define or teach or assess, especially in the context of science. But creativity is at the heart of the advancement of science. As Albeit Einstein so elegantly put it, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science”.

However, there is evidence the cognitive operations required for creativity can be acquired through instructional strategies, which are relatively simple modifications of the active learning known to be effective for teaching abstraction and problem-solving.

In article recently published in Science, Robert L. DeHaan of the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University suggests that two broad categories of mental operations are needed to produce creative insight, namely: associative (divergent) thinking, where thoughts are defocused, intuitive and receptive and; analytical (convergent) thinking, which entails the capacity to analyze, synthesize and focus.

Associative thinking increases the probability of accessing weakly associated
Ideas. Convergent thinking involves unexpected recognition of novel relations through conceptual re-ordering or conceptual integration or blending of concepts or ideas.

A fundamental problem persists in science education: preparing undergraduates as scientists. This problem raises a persistent question: how do we structure teaching and learning of science to foster scientific curiosity, reasoning, and problem-solving to produce a generation of science undergraduates who think scientifically.

Robert L. DeHaan noted that while we expect science students to solve problems, we rarely refer to the creative aspects of the scientific discoveries that we teach. In an article published in Science in 2008, Sarah Miller and colleagues advanced the idea of scientific teaching. They argued that scientific teaching comprise methods that encourage students to construct new knowledge and to develop scientific ways of thinking. Carl Wieman, recipient of Nobel Prize in physics in 2001 believes that successful science education transforms how students think, so they can understand and use science like scientists.

According to Carl Wieman, fundamental institutional reform is necessary to deliver the needed reforms in teaching and learning of science.

Carl Wieman identifies key challenges to delivering fundamental reform to science education: research universities and their faculty care little about teaching or student learning; introducing research-based teaching and learning in college science programs will require resources to develop and test effective pedagogical materials, supporting technology and providing for faculty development; the budget for R & D an the implementation of improved methods at most universities is nearly zero.

These challenges present a framework for a coherent call to action to deliver a breakthrough in science education.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Yes, there is such a thing as Clintonesque.

Politics has an inordinate share of the less elegant and more obtuse of our kind. However, politics can attract truly remarkable individuals.

In his book, the “Audacity of Hope”, Barrack Obama writes about the Clinton administration. He says that the reason he admired Bill Clinton is that he tried to grapple with and solve problems.

Plato in his “Republic” postulated the ideal of a state governed by intellectuals who combined comprehensive theoretical knowledge with the practical capacity for applying it to concrete problems. Intellectuals can be described as individuals dedicated to the life of the mind.

Bill Clinton is a truly rare kind of politician.

In his latest book, “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy”, Bill Clinton posses the one question at the core of the US growth and stagnation conundrum, namely: How do we ensure America’s economic, political, and security leadership in the more competitive, complex, fragmented and fast changing world of the twenty-first century?

And to Clinton’s question, the template for action may be found in this quote from Abraham Lincoln, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present”.

Bill Clinton, I think, is the only political figure in America who can talk truth – unvarnished truth – to Americans about what ails the economy and polity and what could be done in an attempt to fix the problems.

Now here are excerpts (from of Bill Clinton on the Bill O’Reilly show.

In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Bill Clinton makes the case for changing the economic structure of America as only he can make.

Former President Bill Clinton said he doubts that the Supreme Court will repeal the national healthcare law, and it behooves America to have the reform in place.

“No other rich country in the world spends more than 12 percent of income to insure 100 percent of the people,” Clinton said Tuesday on “The O’Reilly Factor,” referring to the “17½ percent of income to insure 84 percent of the people” the United States spends. “And we don’t get better health outcomes. It’s terrible economics.”

The 42nd president, making a debut appearance on the popular Fox News show, also discussed the Obama administration, Guantanamo Bay, the Taliban, and the 2012 election. He is promoting his newest book, “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.”

O’Reilly asked Clinton about the “class warfare” rhetoric that’s dominating the clash between Republicans and Democrats.

“I don’t look at it as class warfare,” Clinton said. “I don’t mind paying more taxes ... but that won’t solve the problem. That will help us balance the budget when there’s growth again. We have to change the whole job structure of America.”

On the topic of Guantanamo Bay, Clinton said, “I don’t believe I’d have ever opened it in the first place, but I’d like to see it closed. I think there are places [detainees] could be kept in America.”

He commented on Vice President Joe Biden’s recent statement that the Taliban is not a direct U.S. enemy by saying he would be "really concerned if they were to govern Afghanistan."
“One of the things that I would be concerned about, and always have been with the Taliban, is how miserable they made life for so many women and little girls,” Clinton said.

He said he respects Newt Gingrich and the former House speaker’s run for the Oval Office, but said, “I’m going to vote for Obama.”

“I believe in a whole different direction in energy policy,” he said. “I think the president’s done a good job with foreign policy, and I think he’s got a better economic strategy, now, going, than the one [Newt’s] likely to implement.”

Clinton said Obama has a better than 50 percent chance of winning in 2012.
“He’s out there running against himself now,” he said. “As soon as he gets an opponent, it’ll be, ‘For the next four years, who do you think is more likely to take us in the right direction?’”.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Academia and its Discontents

About four years ago I spoke with a friend, an academic from the US who illustrated the plight of professors and research scientist in a scary way. He described how several of his friends had to pack and leave after they failed to make tenure because they could not secure grants that could get them graduate students and publications. He talked about scores of colleagues and friends from graduate school who abandoned their science/research careers because they could not earn their keep in an era of scarce grant resources and tight institutional budgets.

I came away thinking about life as a scientist and academic as nasty, short and brutish.

But there seems to be real crises Down Under.

Academics unhappy
“Australian academic researchers are rallying behind a report that laments their working conditions. The government-funded study, out in September, surveyed 5,525 academics across all career stages and fields at 20 universities. It found that nearly half of academics under 30 want to leave the country or the profession owing to low pay and lack of job security.

Researchers are frustrated by teaching obligations that cut into research time; low grant success rates; and 70- to 80-hour working weeks. Emmaline Bexley, a lecturer in higher education at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the study, says she hopes that her research will “help government and universities to work together to replenish the academic workforce”.

-AArticle published as in Nature Volume 478 pg 549, October 27 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

To Do Death in the Active Sense

Christopher Hitchens age 62 died Thursday 15 2011.

In his last essay in Vanity Fair he wrote, “So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline”.

An antitheist, Hitchens was unwavering in his belief in rational thinking by describing organized religion as the main source of hatred and tyranny in the world. Hitchens argued that faith was the surrender of reason, surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals.

Even after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2010, Hitchens said he would not turn to religion for comfort. He made it clear that if anyone ever claimed he had converted at the end of his life,” the entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark”.

Christopher Hitchens enlightened and enraged many. He proffered penetrating insight on a broad range of issues of deep public interest, from politics to religion and his own mortality. Before he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer Hitchens said, “I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense”.

He is best known perhaps for lambasting Mother Teresa. Hitchens claimed that Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor but rather a friend of poverty.

Christopher Hitchens wrote penned two dozen books, including "Letters To A Young Contrarian," "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" "Hitch-22: A Memoir" and last but not least, “Arguably. In September 2005 he was named one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines

In his last book, Arguably, Christopher Hitchens writes, ” I was informed by a doctor that I have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of the articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last. But it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending and I hope very much that some of this may infect those of you who have been generous enough to read me this far.”

I think Christopher Hitchens was one of the most effective and accessible public intellectuals of our time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Africa: A Trap of Potential?

Lately, I have been reading the outpouring of confidence the rest of the world has on Africa. A majority of the views I have had occasion to read have been unanimous in the conviction that the next century belongs to Africa. There seems to me that there is, globally, an imperishable belief that Africa is the next frontier.

There is endless chatter about Africa’s potential. Tony Blair believes that Africa can be for the first half of this century what Asia was for the second half of the last century. This is truly bold optimism.

Admittedly, Africa has in abundance valuable mineral resources. For instance, Africa has 10 % of the world’s oil resources, 8 % of the world’s gas resources, 60 % of the world’s diamonds. Namibia alone has 7 % of the world’s uranium resource.

This potential game gets even better. The untapped mineral resources –cobalt, diamond, copper and gold- of the DR Congo are estimated at $24 trillion (38% of global GDP), the equivalent of the combined GDP of Europe and the United States of America. The DR Congo’s hydroelectric power potential is estimated at 100,000 MW.

But Africa’s combined GDP is just $1.7 trillion, a mere 2.6% of the global GDP. Why I ask, is Africa locked in this eternal trap of potential?

Africa’s trap of potential becomes explicable when you take into account that it has the highest proportion of: the world’s hungry and malnourished; the world’s poor; the lowest gross enrollment ratios at all level of education; badly managed countries; and the highest disease burden – mostly preventable diseases.

African political class does not have an inordinate share of kleptocrats compared to Asia or countries like Italy or Russia or India or Pakistan.

Bill Easterly has pointed out that the divergence between Africa and East Asia, for instance is dramatic. The two regions, Easterly observes, started from similar level of per capita income, economic structure and human development.

In their essay “Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions”, William Easterly and Ross Levin suggested that Africa’s high ethnic fragmentation explains a significant part of most of the factors that stymie Africa’s growth.

Although there is broad consensus about the adoption of flawed policies as cause of the Africa’s growth tragedy and about the causal relationship between the quality of public and private institutions and the quality of governance, there is still inadequate understanding of the main reasons behind the apparent lack of growth in a majority of African countries.

Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews discuss the mechanisms of persistent implementation failure. They use a variety of indicators to illustrate that many countries remain in “state capability traps” where the implementation capacity of the state is severely limited. Pritchett et al suggest that at the current pace of progress Liberia would take hundreds of years to reach the capability of a country like Singapore and decades to catch up with a moderate capability country like India.

Weak human capacity or intellectual capital is at the heart of state capability trap and implementation failure among African countries. Africa’s underinvestment in higher education is persistent and debilitating. According to 2009 statistics by UNESCO, gross enrollment in Africa’s higher education was just 5 % compared to 20 % in East Asia and 70% in OECD countries.

The technical caliber of the civil service in a majority of African countries betrays decades of underinvestment in human capacity. For instance, a 2011 audit of revealed that after half a century of independence less than 10 % of Kenya’s civil servants have attained higher education. Similarly, in 1998, less than 3% of the national public administration staff of Mozambique had received higher education.

It seems to me that a critical outcome of low technical competence within public and private sector in a majority of African countries has encouraged the perpetration of classic modernization as an approach to development. Rather than evolve their own unique pathways and theory of developmental change, African states have relied on models and approaches to change, including institutional forms imported from other countries. Pritchett et al have referred to this as “isomorphic mimicry”.

Isomorphic mimicry is the reason why a majority of African countries subscribe to the logics development and yet fail to acquire real capability. Isomorphic mimicry is the reason Africa is teaming with experts and consultants of every color and creed.

Underinvestment in education, isomorphic mimicry and the mistaken belief in the Hegelian teleology of classic modernization is the reason we do not hear an African led discourse on a uniquely African development trajectory suited to Africa’s context.

Africa like other continents and regions must define it destiny and chart her own cause. African governments must ramp up investments in higher education. African scholars and intellectuals must engage and grapple with the search for authentic, context relevant solutions to catalyze a uniquely African path to sustained development.

Africa’s true potential lies in its human resources, not on troves minerals beneath the surface. The riches of Africa’s resources will always benefit everyone else except Africans as long as Africa’s human resources remain a desolate wasteland.

No amount of aid or expatriate support will substitute for Africa’s lack of capability. And only Africans can and must confront and overcome Africa’s challenges.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

In Defense of Science

From evolution to stem cell research to climate change, science has always scuttled established power structures – religious and secular. Science is therefore by no means apolitical and the conduct of science is a political act.

However, any reference to science as a political act almost often raises the ire of scientist. We always want to think of our trade as dispassionate and driven primarily by evidence gained through reason, careful observation and painstaking experimentation.

Michael Foucault, the French postmodernist uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth. According to Foucault, each society has its general regime of truth, a general politics of truth; the types of discourse, which it privileges as true, the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth and the status of those charged with proclaiming what counts as true.

The regimes and general politics of truth are the progeny of scientific discourse and institutions and are reinforced and validated through the education system, the media and the dominant or state sanctioned political and economic ideologies. The battle for the truth is seldom about the quest for absolute truth but a battle about the status of the truth and the socio-economic and political role it signifies. Truth is about the interests enabled or constrained.

If we assume that scientific method is a reliable method of creating the truth and the essential knowledge base as well as the power it confers. As Francis Bacon put it “power and knowledge go hand in hand”. Since science opens new vistas of knowledge, it pushes as to question old paradigms and disrupts existing order, and that is always political.

In a new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Shawn Lawrence Otto argues that the politics of science is not new. Every time a scientist makes a factual assertion such as the earth goes around the sun, there is such a thing as evolution, or that human are causing climate change somebody’s vested interests are either enabled or constrained.

Lawrence Shawn Otto further argues that the reasons the church went to absurd lengths to deal with Galileo are the same reasons we fight political battles over climate change today. According to Otto, the practice of science cannot be apolitical. The essence of the scientific process is to question long-held assumptions and to build knowledge that is independent of our beliefs or assumptions.

Hence a scientifically testable claim can be shown to be most probably true or utterly flawed, regardless of who makes it – president or pope or peasant. Science is therefore inherently egalitarian, annihilating hierarchical power structures.

Otto posits that the challenge to authority that science presents is one of many reasons why it has flourished in free, democratic societies. Otto further suggests that the scientific revolution has been led largely by the liberal democracies of Europe and North America. Of significance is the observation by Otto that the prevailing political climate in the US has hampered US policy makers’ capacity to respond to many and urgent science policy issues.

In her widely acclaimed book “The Age of American Unreason” American writer Susan Jacoby observes;
It remains to be seen, as the current presidential campaign unfolds, whether Americans are willing to consider what the flight from reason has cost us as a people and whether any candidate has the will or the courage to talk about ignorance as a political issue affecting everything from scientific research to decisions about war and peace."

In his book “The Assault on Reason” Al Gore asks "Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?" Al Gore offers that the persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of massive and well-understood evidence to the contrary has reached levels previously imagined.

Thomas Jefferson believed that without a well-informed voter/citizenry, the very exercise of democracy becomes removed from the problems it is charged with solving. One might think Jefferson was referring to the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. There is no debate or discussion in empty chambers of the Senate or the House of Representatives. The US Congress is silent, dysfunctional.

Without the anchor provided by enlightened opinion of the citizenry and their representatives, society may become paralyzed or worse, corrupted and besieged by powerful interests seeking to perpetuate and preserve existing hierarchical power structures.

Lawrence Shawn Otto asks if American-style democracy beholden to the Tea Party, the Birthers, and Occupy Wall Street will be able to compete in the age of reason–; complex, science driven global economy – where nations like China are run by engineers and scientists.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Feeding the World and Saving the Planet

Emission of Green House Gases into the atmosphere is a veritable tragedy of the commons. The effect of GHG on global climate is an existential challenge. A challenge that demands International Collective Action.

But climate change is also a challenge for which a capacity for global governance is nearly lacking. Global competition and narrow sovereign short-term economic interests have triumphed over a collective responsibility to our common future.

Can we as humans recognize the scale of peril that climate change presents and rally global capital for collective responsible action?

As we cross the 7 billion mark, the scale of the anthropocene as an era of catastrophic transformation becomes ever more worrying.

Providing food, fibre and shelter in a business as usual fashion will only make the planet hotter and leave a growing majority of hungrier in an inequitable and unstable world.

But through innovation we can nourish and cloth the world and heal the planet. It does not have to be a zero sum game.

What can (must) we achieve in Durban at COP17?

Agriculture: A Call to Action for COP17 Climate Change Negotiators

Our world faces formidable challenges. The global population has now crossed the seven billion mark and is projected to reach nine billion by mid-century, requiring at least a 70 percent increase in agricultural production to meet increased demand.

The world's resources are under more strain than ever before as global demand for water, energy and food is on the rise. At the same time, climate change threatens farmers' ability to produce enough to meet growing demand, and poor communities' ability to access nutritious food.

More frequent and extreme weather events are affecting our food supply, our infrastructure and our livelihoods. Last year, Russia suffered its worst drought in more than 100 years, triggering forest fires and destroying millions of hectares of crops. This year we have seen the Horn of Africa face its worst drought in 60 years as more than 13 million people requiring emergency food aid and pastoralists losing a third of their livestock. Recent flooding in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Cambodia has also impacted livelihoods and worsened food insecurity.

The most vulnerable regions of the world – developing countries – are disproportionately affected by climate change, despite contributing little to carbon emissions. People in developing countries depend heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods, yet are increasingly challenged in their ability to produce sufficient food for their families and for markets.

Whilst agriculture is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it has significant potential to be part of the solution to climate change. Preserving and enhancing food security requires increasing agricultural productivity whilst at the time adapting to and mitigating climate change. It also requires a shift towards building farmers' and vulnerable communities' resilience to climate shocks, and related food price volatility.

More productive, sustainable and resilient agriculture requires transformations in how rural people manage natural resources and how efficiently they use these resources as inputs for crop production. For these transformations to occur, it is essential that the world's farmers, scientists, researchers, the private sector, development practitioners and food consumers come together to achieve climate-smart agriculture.

Yet the agricultural sector remains astonishingly underfunded. As a percentage of total investment, agriculture has dropped from 22 percent in 1980 to approximately 6 percent today. In absolute terms, this constitutes a drop to roughly half of the funding allocated thirty years ago.

At the upcoming climate change negotiations in Durban, we call on negotiators to recognise the important role of agriculture in addressing climate change so that a new era of agricultural innovation and knowledge sharing can be achieved. Specifically, we ask that they approve a Work Programme for agriculture under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) so that the sector can take early action to determine the long-term investments needed to transform agriculture to meet future challenges.

Endorsed by:

• UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

• UN World Food Programme (WFP)

• International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

• The World Bank

• CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)

• Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU)

• International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

• Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR)

• Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

• World Farmers' Organisation (WFO)

• Global Donor Platform for Rural Development

• ACP/EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA)

• Farming First

• Danish Agriculture and Food Council

• Agriculture for Impact

• International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)


Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone from Zain Kenya


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