Tuesday, April 16, 2024

OWEYEGHA-AFUNADUULA: Does One Have To Have A Degree In Order To Be A Scientist? The Case Of Uganda.

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By Oweyegha-Afunaduula

It is true. Life is about nothing but influence and change. If you cannot influence anything or contribute to change then you are just a sojourner who would be best if not brought into the world. And one can influence and bring about change at any level of society. One need not be a politician to be of influence or be a change agent.

One of the greatest tragedies of the colonial education system we inherited from our former colonizers – the English – was that a degree was the ultimate acquisition for someone who wanted to be a success story in life. The assumption was that without a degree one would be of no use in or to society. But this was false. At independence in 1962, most of our post-colonial leaders in Africa had no degrees. They included Apollo Milton Obote of Uganda to whom the colonialists handed the instruments of power. They performed far better in terms of influencing towards change forwards rather than backwards compared to our “degreed” people of power today.


Our current people of power in Uganda, for reasons best known to themselves, have decided to separate the sciences (i.e., the natural sciences, the humanities or arts and the social sciences) further, ostensibly to power the country into a new science and technology mode in the 21st Century. I have already written an article on the Politics of Pure Science in Uganda. So, I will not go back to articulating the dangers of emphasizing boundaries in science knowledge and application of science knowledge in influencing and’or changing society to new levels of achievement in development, transformation and progress. What I want to write about is: Does a degree make one a good or effective scientist as an influencer and change agent?

Let me answer the question I have set myself. No. God, the First Scientist, was not a certified scientist. History has recorded many scientists who never had degrees.

When Galileo Galilei made his scientific discoveries in the Renaissance in Europe, he had no degree.  There are many renowned scientists after Galileo Galilei who contributed greatly to the scientific and technological revolution in Europe in particular and the World in general but were never certified as degreed scientists. Besides, there are many good scientists who embarked on degree courses but never completed them. Nevertheless, they remained excellent scientists. It is also possible that many scientists remained active in science, obtained their degrees but were not good enough compared to some who never got degrees because they dropped out of their degree programmes for various reasons. Others turned out to be great scientists in the natural sciences despite having obtained degrees in either the humanities or the social sciences.

Apart from Galileo Galilei who did so much for the scientific and technological revolution before he had a degree, there are many others who did. I hope when I mention some it will arouse your curiosity and help you change your mind about who a good and efficient scientist is. Possibly you will stop judging a scientist using the grade of his or her degree as the yardstick and even start asking: what went wrong with the human mind. Apparently many scientists today are more theoretical than practical and just reproduce the theories of others like was the case when Galileo Galilei came on the scientific scene.

Let me start with those mentioned by Francis Hooton in his article “Don’t Judge a Scientist by their Degree Grade” published in the Biologist, a publication of The Royal Society of Biology. He mentioned three Copley Medal winners: Michael Faraday, who only did apprenticeship and had no degree; Charles Darwin who had an ordinary degree in Theology and no degree in any scientific discipline; and James Prescott Joule, who had no degree.  Michael Faraday  was an English scientist who contributed to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. His main discoveries include the principles underlying electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis. Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, widely known for his contributions to evolutionary biology. James Joules was an English physicist, mathematician and brewer, born in Salford, Lancashire. Joule studied the nature of heat. He published widely.

The list of famous scientists who had no degrees is inexhaustible. JamesAConrad.com gives a long list of famous scientists who never had degrees. It includes:

  • Richard Leakey, a Kenyan-born archaeologist
  • Robert Evans, an Australian-born astronomer
  • Stephen Felton, American-born paleontologist or fossilist
  • Vladimar Nabokov, entomologist (insect researcher)
  • Henrietta Swan Leavitt, astronomer
  • Reginald Hooley, paleontologist, fossilist
  • V. Michurin, Horticulturist, Botanical geneticist
  • Thomas Edison, once described as the greatest inventor of all time, an inventor, who held electrical, mechanical and chemical patents.
  • Gregor Mendel, first geneticist, naturalist, botanist, the father of modern genetics
  • Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist, anatomist
  • Henry David Thoreau, naturalist
  • William Fox, Paleontologist
  • William Darwin Fox, Naturalist, entomologist (insect researcher)
  • Charles Goodyear, Chemist, discoverer of the process of vulcanizing rubber
  • Mary Anning, Paleontologist
  • Mary Somerville, mathematician, astronomer and science writer
  • Caroline Herschell, astronomer and discoverer of Planet Uranus
  • Benjamin Franklin, physicist, inventor and America’s first scientist
  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, first microbiologist, Father of Microbiology
  • Leonardo da Vinci, Mathematician, engineer, anatomist, geologist, botanist, inventor and artist (many things in one)

To these we can add Annie Jump Cannon, an influential astronomer who lacked formal education in astronomy, created the Havard Classification System. And whose work led to the discovery of 300,000 stars; Nikola Testa, an electrical Engineer whose work revolutionized the field of electrical engineering; Alfred Russell Wallace,  a British naturalist who was the real father of the Theory of Natural Selection, and carried out studies in animal behaviour and biogeography, although he lacked formal education in biology; Micheal Ventris, a British architect who also became a renowned linguist; James Clerk Maxwell, a Scotsh Physicist whose work paved the way for the development of modern technologies like radio, television, and radar, and also made important contributions to the understanding of color vision, the kinetic theory of gases, and thermodynamics; Humphrey Davy, a renowned British  Chemist who made several groundbreaking discoveries, including the isolation of chemical elements such as potassium, sodium, barium, calcium, and magnesium; Benjamin Thompson, a British physicist who without any formal education  a physicist and inventor who made remarkable advancements in the field of thermodynamics; James Priestley described as a a remarkable polymath who left a significant mark in various fields and whose discovery of oxygen is considered one of the most significant contributions to science; James Croll, a self-taught scientist who earned many honours.

I can, therefore, state without hesitation that not being formally educated is not necessarily inability to think correctly and productively. Unfortunately, in Africa in general and Uganda in particular we despise those who have not got formal education as inconsequential. In Uganda, there is now an uninformed policy of promoting certified education at degree level. We have even set an ultimatum fro teachers in primary and secondary education for anyone who has no degree to have acquired them within six years. If not they not to expect to continue teaching in Ugandan schools. We have made the degree as the beginning and end of everything towards 2050.

As I have tried to show, in the past creativity and innovation did not require degrees. It is hard to understand why today we think that the only creative and innovative people in science and other fields of knowledge are those with degrees. We have destroyed creativity and innovation in traditional societies where the creativity and innovation used to preside. We are destroying the environment, which was where creativity and innovation occurred. We are eroding the biocultural diversity which was the outdoor laboratory for people like Wallace and Darwin. We are falsely convinced that real creativity and innovation must occur only in the laboratories of the natural sciences. We think there is no creativity and innovation in the humanities and social sciences and that natural science do not need social sciences and the humanities to innovate and create.

What all this means is that we do recognize that real science does not reside in laboratories but among people and their communities or between the boundaries of the disciplines and or the territories of knowledge. We don’t think and believe that creativity and innovation can come from anywhere if we allow people to think and analyse phenomena critically from any station in life, whether they are men, women or children. It is true. The Creator and First Scientist, God, gave each of us freedom to use the brains in our heads to create and innovate. One writer said he gave each of us 75% of his thinking capacities and retained the other 25%. So, each of us has the human potential to create and innovate. All we need are the right environments and the right policies of education, teaching, learning and research, or else the right  science and technology choices.

An education system that encourages more and more fragmentation of knowledge into small pockets of knowledge within non-interacting academic territories of natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, and regards degreed education as the only education, will not nurture new versatile scientists and thinkers of the Leonardo da Vinci type. We have to reintegrate knowledge and truth, and, more important, de-fragment knowledge and truth.

For God and My Country

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