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  • season 1, episode 7: the global perception of science

    Episode 7: Global Perception of Science

    Are people in the US more skeptical of science than those in Japan? What role do cultural and economical factors play in how science is viewed throughout the world? Our guest brings a global perspective.

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Featured Guest

  • Carolina Ödman-Govender, Chief Scientist at thumbzup

    Carolina Ödman

    Professor Carolina Ödman is an Associate Professor of Physics at University of the Western Cape and an Associate Scientist at SKA South Africa, helping promote economic, technological and scientific development in the developing world. She holds a PhD from Cambridge University.

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An international science career is interesting because you get to meet people from lots of different careers, with different perceptions. There's an incredible cross-pollination of ideas. @carolune #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Some of the most interesting technology and science problems are being tackled in developing countries by local scientists. @carolune #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Read Full Episode Transcript

  • Jayshree Seth: Only 13% of the people we polled in the United States say they don’t trust science. But in Japan, 30% were skeptical. How does the perception of science differ around the world? We’ll find out on this episode of Science Champions.

    Welcome to episode 8 of Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.

    On this episode, we’re talking about the global perception of science. There are dozens of factors that can influence the way people think about science and the impact it has on their everyday lives. Cultural history, level of technological development, even economic factors can play a role. For example, in India, my home country, there is traditionally great respect for those in authority and those with knowledge. So I wasn’t surprised to see India had a higher level of trust in science than other countries.

    My guest this episode is uniquely qualified to talk about the perception of science in developing countries and around the world. Carolina Odman has lived and worked in the Netherlands and also throughout the developing world. Carolina, can you talk a bit about your background and what you do now?

    Carolina Ödman: Sure. My name is Carolina Odman. I am by training originally an engineer but then I have a PhD in astrophysics theoretical cosmology of all things. Um, after that I did some research and then I did a first career turn and I worked in the world of education. So, I set up and ran a program called Universe Awareness where the idea was to use the inspiration that astronomy brings or the science to stimulate early childhood development. It was a great program because it was focusing on the children's development and not just on promoting the science for its own sake which was very very interesting. Then I came to South Africa from Europe and I’ve been here for the last two and a half years. Here I worked at the Next Einstein Initiative for a little while which is a network of graduate centers in in mathematics which are also a fascinating initiative. For the last five years, I’ve been chief scientist in a Fintech startup here in South Africa. So, yeah, a few twists and turns but I think you're once a scientist always a scientist.

    Jayshree Seth: I couldn’t agree more. So, you have worked in many countries & communities around the world. Have you seen noticable differences in the way different nationalities perceive science and scientists? Can you give an example?

    Carolina Ödman: So, I think definitely there's different perceptions of science in different cultures. I think it also depends somewhat on how the culture has belief systems embedded in it as well in terms of perception of science and whether it is side to side with belief systems or whether belief systems are not very prominent and then there's a sort of a more technocratic kind of culture. So, yeah. There are a lot differences and that's why an international science career is very interesting because you get to meet people from lots of different careers and perceptions. There's an incredible cross-pollination of ideas and ways of thinking that happen when you meet different people and people doing differently. But in terms of sort of popular perception of science and scientific professions, I can give you maybe a few examples. In India for example, there's a lot of respect for science. But I think engineering and medicine are probably more desirable as a profession than say blue skies research, say you know pure mathematics even though they're very proud of their mathematicians who have done groundbreaking discoveries in the history of science. So, it's very interesting. There's both pride and... But in terms of professions, I think in countries where resources are limited I think the salaries are very important when you come to advise your children in terms of choice of profession. So, for example, in South Africa and not exclusively South Africa, it's similar in other African countries as well, there's often for students who graduates or who are going to choose tertiary studies, the pressure to go and study something that will land them a job that pays well afterwards because often young professionals support their families. So, in South Africa for example, a doctor or lawyer have much higher profile if you will as professions then scientist. And also, in a lot of these countries there is no clear image of what a scientist is in sort of popular culture and/or in sort of public perception other than it's probably an old white man in a lab coat and that creates a sort of an identification challenge for say a young black African woman who wants to go and study.

    There's another interesting situation I’ve come across for example in southern Europe. Government-funded research is often carried out by women and then in other European countries also. But this is not actually true gender equality. Because post-docs and entry-level research positions when the government-funded don't pay well at all. And there's sort of culture where the priorities for men is to earn money which means that you end up with a lot of women scientists. But if you look at the leadership in science in those countries, it's often so very much a male-dominated. So, it's very cultural. It's very much tied to the culture in the different regions.

    Jayshree Seth: That dynamic between men and women is certainly different to what you find in the U.S. Science, even research science, tends to be a male-dominated field.

    Carolina Ödman: Yeah. expectations of men and expectations of women I think have a role to play in in people's career choices and in places where scientific jobs aren't necessarily linked with high salaries, I think you'll find more women because men tend to have more money driven choices in that sense. But everything evolves all the time. So, it's always a changing landscape and it will be interesting to see what it's like in 10 or 20 years’ time.

    Jayshree Seth: Can you think of one scientific or technological development those in the developed world take for granted that has yet to be deployed throughout the developing world?

    Carolina Ödman: Okay. I think this is an interesting question because from where I see it, there's no technology that is really yet to be deployed to the developing world. I think the main difference is the financial resources. So, a couple of examples. Anyone who has money, for example, will have access to any technology they want. So, it takes different forms in different places. So, people with more resources in a developing country, for example, will have a foreign app store account to have access to the latest apps, for example. But that sort of thing is more a manifestation of the difference in attention that the developing world is getting from say big tech companies for example. So, that's one manifestation. Another thing for example in terms of medical technology, often people with means will travel to have access to the latest and the best and this is again a question of resources available for investment in technology. So, this means that some medical technologies that may be taken for granted in the developed world may not be accessible equally to people in the developing world even though the people in the developing world who have the resources will make sure that they access them if they need them. So, I think in summary, I'd say that the main difference is probably the divide between the most wealthy and the least wealthy that is much greater in the developing world than in the developed world. And therefore, access is vastly different rather than say a delay in the deploying technology.

    Jayshree Seth: So you think of this as more of an access problem — an economics problem — rather than a technological or scientific one?

    Carolina Ödman: Exactly. And it costs lives and it costs a lot of things. But I think it's also again something that runs deep in societies where the divide is very big. Looking at South Africa for example, I mean the cost of living will be higher for people with less means. Right. So, it will cost them more to have water. It will cost them more to have transport. It'll cost them more to have access to be able to generate an income then for people who already have a base income. You know things are easier, the more you have. And it goes at all levels and access to technology is definitely one of them.

    Jayshree Seth: What are the technologies you feel scientists should be focusing their attention on to solve problems in the developing world?

    Carolina Ödman: I gave this a bit of thought and I honestly think that the technologies serve problems rather and that problems drive the development of technology. So, there's plenty of scientists in the developing world that are doing the best. It's not a world apart where it's driven by a gaze from scientists in the developed world. So, it's a very interesting place to be in. In fact, some of the most interesting technology and science problems are being tackled in developing countries by local scientists. I have a great example for you. Here is the Square Kilometer Array, the SKA, which is a massive radio telescope that's being built in Australia but also in South Africa and will extend across nine African countries with around 3,000 radio dishes and more types of receivers that will be scattered across the continent. This project, this instrument will produce completely unseen quantities of data. This is a big in big data. Big data doesn't quite exist yet when you understand the scope and the quantity of data that would be generated by this instrument. And so, this data needs to be pre-processed, transported, stored and presented in a usable form to the scientific community. And each of these steps in itself is a massive technological challenge. So, there's a large team in South Africa who are working on this with African partners and not just in the development of it but also, they ensure that then the need for skills is met with a substantial investment in education and training initiatives. So, programs like that that are sort of you know based in a developing region attract large international technology companies. For example, for the last few years now there's an IBM research lab in South Africa that is part of the global network of IBM research labs and this particular one does research in quantum computing for example. So, it brings in cutting-edge from the outside as well. So, it's a very interesting perspective that a developing country can take when they invest in something ambitious like this. And in this case, it's a beautiful example of this being very successful. So, I think is also drive in the developing world to become nations that create technology and not just consume it. And I think as soon as the government takes that standpoint, the way of thinking in the way of strategizing their limited resources that they invest in science and technology becomes different and more productive.

    Jayshree Seth: I love hearing about a truly global initiative like this one. It’ll be exciting to see the project develop.

    Carolina Ödman: Oh yes. No. It's incredible you can look up. It's the Square Kilometer Array telescope, SKA telescope, and it's an incredible initiative and it's a global science project. I don't know how many countries, Europe, Canada, China, India, Australia and Africa, everybody's represented. It's a massive effort in terms of engineering, in terms of IT, in terms of infrastructure as well as in terms of astronomy. It's a very ambitious project. [laugh]

    Jayshree Seth: Now, getting into your firsthand experience: You previously were the Director of Academic Development at the AIMS Next Einstein Initiative. What did that role teach you about science education in the developing world?

    Carolina Ödman: Okay. So, I love this question. Because I had the opportunity in that position to really see and get to know a lot of students and they're the most wonderful wonderful people. What I get from that is that there's an incredible hunger for opportunity. The students are incredibly dedicated when they're given a chance to shine. So, in this program is one that takes graduate students or students who have graduated from African universities and gives them a master's course in mathematical sciences. Now the African students that come to this program with degrees from all over the continent, it's very interesting group of people who come every year in these centers because there is some inconsistency in their knowledge, you know, between two people there will be differences. And that will be due to what their home university teaches because not all African universities are offering, for example, a degree in physics, will be able to offer a comprehensive overview of all fields of physics. So, you will have students who are particularly good at say biophysics but have no idea of solid-state physics. And then you'll have students who have done a lot of work in in theoretical physics but will not have any idea about what happens in a lab for example. So, it's a very interesting heterogeneous group of students that come to these centers. A program like the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences is a good place to create well-rounded and skilled students so they do you know a lot of programming and things like that. So, they end up you know very competitive. So, while the disparity in knowledge may hold back some institutions from betting on African students or hiring or enrolling African students. I think African student’s capacity to learn and their eagerness is often greater than that of students from places where the opportunity to study can possibly be taken for granted and often that makes for absolutely incredible students.

    Jayshree Seth: That’s definitely something we’ve talked about in previous episodes - that in countries where people are immersed in technology and have a wealth of education opportunities, people tend to take science for granted. Do you believe economics plays a big role in promoting or hindering scientific development? How do the economic realities in emerging and developed countries change the way science progresses?

    Carolina Ödman: I mentioned earlier that financial resources have a huge impact on access in developing and emerging regions. So, obviously it does play a role in scientific development in developing regions. There's also the pressure of the jobs, having to pay for often supporting whole families, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins etc. which is a big responsibility. But I think science itself is global. Right. So, as long as there is an opportunity to be part of the global science community then opportunities come to do good science. But also, in terms of priorities, so I mentioned the priorities are to support families and things, but the priorities in terms of national policy most developing in emerging countries want to invest in cutting-edge science because they don't want to see themselves as second-class nations, you know, what I mentioned being creators of technology and science and not just consuming it. For example, this worked extremely well and paid off for China. For decades, they have invested in science and setting up science and technology universities, sending out people around the world and bringing them back home and giving them good labs and things. It's worked incredibly well and the science community in China now is one of the leading communities in the world. However, if you look at less wealthy nations that are still working on getting there, I think the hunger to get more educated populations leads to quite a heavy teaching load for scientists because there are not as many say PhD’s around in those countries as they are say in North America or in Europe for example. Also, there are smaller budgets and universities often are not very well funded. So, it's very difficult to keep up with research. So, especially in fields that are capital intensive where you need specialized lab equipment or samples or things like that. But again, international collaboration is the key to assist in keeping the scientists from emerging and developing nations involved in them in any capacity as long as they're still there and also as long as they feel that they're still there and that they are exposed to and part of what's happening in in the whole world, their impact on their students will also be greater. But I think there's a very very heavy teaching load in general for scientists in developing regions.

    Jayshree Seth: It’s definitely good to think of science as a global endeavor, not bound by borders. No matter where our fellow scientists are or what language they speak, we’re all in this together.

    The last question I have for you is a little narrower in scope, though. I was inspired by seeing your posts about your children on your Twitter feed. Can you tell me how your scientific background influences your home and family life?

    Carolina Ödman: Okay. Right. That's a fun question. So, both my husband and I are scientists and we have two boys nearly four and six years old. And basically, they're embedded in science and technology. We have technology at home. You know being scientists is part of our identity. So, when the boys ask us questions about the world, they'll often get a scientific answer. But I think most of all, I think we're trying to teach them to reason and to think and to solve problems and to develop similar skills that we value as scientists and I think that's how possibly our bias a scientist to prioritize those skills in our children. So, we don't neglect things like creativity or art or being good humans and things, but we sort of analyze life situations from our own biased perspective. You know that we can't help it I guess. But kids are good, they're great! I think they don't suffer too much from it yet.

    Jayshree Seth: Thanks so much for your time today, Carolina.

    The perception of science does vary widely around the world; there’s no denying it. And there’s also no denying that some countries have more access to the technology, resources, infrastructure and education required for scientific research. Despite all these factors, however, it’s important for scientists to remember that science shouldn’t be separated by borders or bound by geographical locations. Science is for all of humanity, whatever country we call home.

    Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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