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Saturday, July 28, 2012

What Presidential Aspirants Know about Science Matters

Self-ordained presidential aspirants are roaming the country. Their lips are dripping with amateurish proclamations of Kenya’s problems and a shockingly myopic vision of the solutions we need.

As enlightened citizens, we need to know how those who are running for president will address issues that are critical to our country’s future. It is not enough to peddle reform credentials and proffer insipid pledges such as fighting corruption and ending tribalism.

I bet that you and I subject our housekeepers to a more stringent hiring process than the Kenyan electorate does for the President of the Republic of Kenya. The presidency is the most serious job in the land and the bar must be higher.

The real challenges – low agricultural productivity, hunger and malnutrition, environmental degradation, poverty, climate change, energy security, water scarcity, unemployment and disease – that Kenya faces today and in the years ahead will need solutions based on science and engineering.

I suggest 10 science related questions that underlie key national development challenges, which presidential aspirants should address.

1. Economic Growth. Economist Joseph Schumpeter characterized the entrepreneur as the purveyor of the “creative destruction” and systemic change necessary for sustained economic growth. Our society needs to adopt novel approaches to unleash innovation, entrepreneurship and new jobs for a bludgeoning population. What policies will best ensure that Kenya becomes a world leader in innovation?
2. Education. We live in a knowledge-based economy driven by science, technology, engineering and math. National teaching and testing of science emphasize recall of information over deep understanding, reasoning and critical thinking. Students have no time to integrate their ideas or engage in scientific inquiry and discovery. What role should the government play to better prepare our children for the science and technology-driven global economy?
3. Energy. Every development challenge we face today is also an energy challenge. The high disease burden can be attributed to a lack of energy to boil water, power diagnostic equipment, or refrigerate life saving vaccines. The weak manufacturing and industrial base is made worse by unreliable and expensive energy. Food insecurity is exacerbated by shortage of energy for irrigation and mechanization of farm operations. What policies would you support to meet the growing demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
4. Agriculture and Food Security. Kenya’s agriculture is in utter shambles. Our soils are degraded. Our famers work so hard for so little. Many Kenyan families do not have enough food to eat and our children are malnourished. Obesity is on the rise among the middle class. What steps would you take to increase the productivity of our famers, ensure access to healthy food for all Kenyans?
5. Fresh Water. Kenya's natural water resources do not provide equitable access of water to the various regions of the country. This leaves most of the population without any fresh water. The country’s meager water resources are now at risk because of increasing consumption and pollution. What steps, if any, should the government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Kenyans?
6. Public Policy and Science. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society. Science must inform public policy and decision-making.  How will you ensure that policy and decision-making is informed by scientific evidence?
7. Vital Natural Resources. Kenya does not need globally binding agreements to appreciate that a population expanding by over 1million per year needs more food, farmland, water, energy and shelter, which cannot be met on a declining natural capital base. What steps should the government take to ensure sustained availability of vital natural capital?
8. Research and Kenya’s Future. Nationally funded research has helped to produce unprecedented economic and social progress in the developed world and more recently in China. What areas would your government prioritize for investment in research? 
9. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is growing concern about the adverse impact of climate change on the lives of the poor. What is your position on appropriate adaptation, mitigation and other policies to reduce vulnerability of livelihoods and the national economy to the varied and complex impacts of climate change?
10. Human Development and Population Health. The first few years in the life of a child are critical for promoting healthy physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development. A large majority of our children aged 0 to 5 face deficiencies in terms nutrition and intellectual stimulation. Moreover, thousands of children die from preventable diseases such as diarrhea and malaria. What steps would you take to help our children grow up great and protect our population from premature mortality?

The best forum for addressing these issues would be a live TV debate among the aspirants. The voting public would grade the aspirant’s responses and evaluate their suitability for the presidency.

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