Staying relevant as a life scientist in an ever-changing geopolitical and innovation ecosystem

HomeBiotechnologyStaying relevant as a life scientist in an ever-changing geopolitical and innovation ecosystem
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There is an old Indian story of three blind men who came across an elephant. Each of the blind men touched a different part of the elephant and gave a lucid description of what he believed an elephant was. The first blind man touched the elephant and claimed it was a snake; the second person touched the elephant’s leg and declared the elephant to be a tree trunk; the last person touched the elephant’s ear and confidently declared that the elephant was a sail. Based on their limited level of interactions with the elephant, their observations were correct.

I’m certain that if they had collaboratively and holistically studied the elephant, its true structure would have emerged. Sadly, this anecdote describes the hegemonic tussle for supremacy, lack of collaboration among the different life science fields in Nigeria. We continue to fight for supremacy while the rest of the world continue to make significant progress in their science.

In case you have not noticed, our world has become relatively more volatile and may continue like this for the foreseeable future. Some of the pointers that our world is changing include increasing spread of minimalism, Brexit, climate change, new disease epidemics, artificial intelligence, migration, cryptocurrency, murderous herdsmen, ever-expanding achievement gap in our education system.

This volatility poses a threat to a lot of things, for instance, job security. So, how do we stay on top of it? The only way to stay on top of it as scientists and entrepreneurs is to embrace lifelong learning. It’s arguable that some knowledge and skills become antiquated with time. Lifelong learning as defined by the European Lifelong Initiative is “a continuous supportive process which stimulates and empowers individuals to acquire all the knowledge, values, skills and understanding they will require throughout their lifetimes, and to apply it with confidence, creativity and enjoyment, in all roles, circumstances and environment.”

blog2For us (in Nigeria) to achieve job security, and leapfrog from the 2nd industrial revolution to the 4th industrial revolution (4IR) and knowledge economy, we must remain flexible, cross-train (e.g. molecular biology and computer science, biology and engineering) acquire soft skills (written and oral communication skill; leadership and mentorship; people’s skills) and expand on our core expertise, and extensively collaborate. 

For a scientist, there are numerous options that could be explored outside academia — spin-off from a PhD as an entrepreneur, becoming a professional communicator of scientific knowledge, experts in intellectual property, pharmaceutics (drug discovery), investment banking (scientific advice) etc. In today’s world we are obliged to know many things.

We need lifelong learning to prepare for the new world. We must also consider how to provide evidence of our work to political leaders and the citizens of our country. As scientists, scientific communication is part of our job description, and we owe to the society to inform them of what we are doing in our laboratories.

blog3The gulf between our universities and industries is blindingly wide. Little wonder fresh graduates feel out of place when they enter the job market. What we need is a massive private-public interface as this will foster focus on unmet needs, data sharing and dissemination of results, non-competitive collaborative research to mention but a few. Lecturers need to stop seeing themselves as supervisors, but rather as mentors.

One other thing we need is end-to-end integration and alignment of different stakeholders. This will also encourage experiential learning and large multi-disciplinary projects.

Lastly, Jared Diamond, an American anthropologist and biologist, in his book titled, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” describes, among other things, how human history is replete with evidence that the society with the better and stronger tools conquers the one with crude and unrefined tools, whether economically or in terms of warfare. We must learn from our past, take collective responsibility for the changes underway, and create a system that allows innovation and growth. As a nation, I believe that we are at a tipping point, where we need to apply the pareto principle (80/20 rule). All in all, we need a network hub of people that’ll leverage on this tipping point to create the right “epidemic” that will usher us straight into the 4th IR.

I’ll conclude this piece with Delor’s four pillars of education for the future:

  • Learn to knowmastering the tools instead of just acquiring structured knowledge;
  • Learn to dobuilding capacity for the different kinds of work needed at present and in the future including innovation and adaptation of learning to future work environments.
  • Learn to live together, and with others – peaceful conflict resolution, develop an appreciation of other people and their cultures, fostering community capability, individual competence and capacity, economic resilience, and social inclusion.
  • Learn to be – education should wholly develop an individual: mind and body, intelligence, sensitivity, aesthetic appreciation and spirituality.

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