ASSAf celebrates Youth Day through partnership with the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa

ASSAf celebrates Youth Day through partnership with the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa
The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) celebrated Youth Day in South Africa by hosting a webinar on 15 June 2021, in partnership with the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa, the South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS). The webinar was intended to encourage young scientists to be key role players in finding solutions to societal challenges and to play a role in advancing the social responsibility of scientists.

Ambassador H.E Fionnuala Gilsenan from the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa opened the event by saying the event is an opportunity to celebrate the limitless potential of young people. Reflecting on their own history, she emphasised the role of young people in advancing the importance of education at various levels of the education pipeline.

DSI Deputy Director-General, Mr Daan du Toit, spoke about a new Irish initiative called “Creating our Future”.  This focusses on a national conversation on research in Ireland. Mr Du Toit said that this is a model that South Africa should embrace. He said that it was timely for the importance and investment in science.

ASSAf Executive Officer, Prof Himla Soodyall, reiterated the value of ASSAf’s relationship with it partners, specifically with the Embassy Lecture Series. She said that ASSAf was committed to build and promote the activities of young scientists. Young researchers are becoming more vocal, and their voices are important in advancing ASSAf activities that use evidence-based science to contribute to societal issues.

Dr Max Paoli from the World Academy of Sciences was the keynote speaker at this webinar and spoke on “Youth Perspectives on Science and Technology for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”. His focus was on global challenges and sustainable development, with emphasis on the role of science in addressing SDG related research.

The talk by Dr Max Paoli was followed by a session moderated by Ms Louisa Herenghan from the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa and featured four young scientists: Dr Marica Cassarino and Ms Evelyn Nomayo from Ireland as well as Dr Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye and Mr Lesetja Mogoba from South Africa.

This discussion centred on young scientists’ expertise and experience using the following questions addressed randomly among the panellists:

  • What inspired them to pursue a career in science and technology?
  • How did the SDGs shape their research focus and agenda?
  • What were the barriers to youth involvement and what policy actions could be implemented to garner further support for them?
  • How could young scientists better engage in, and influence policy processes related to science, technology and innovation?
  • What could be done to facilitate transferable digital skills to empower job opportunities and entrepreneurship?
  • What was the value of science, technology and innovation when leveraging advancement of sustainable development processes more broadly? Related to this, the panellists were asked how they envisaged the digital divide and unequal access to technology in compromising their efforts in advancing the use of science and technology when addressing the SDGs?
  • How could young women and young people from underrepresented communities be encouraged to pursue careers in science and participate in SDG research?
  • How did international collaboration shape their work and how could international collaborative projects be leveraged to create more opportunities for youth involvement?

The panellists responded to the above questions by saying that their inspiration came from their lived daily experiences. These included siblings who are passionate about maths and physics, their interest in digital platforms and being imaginative when visualising science in laboratories. They highlighted some of the barriers to youth involvement in science, including lack of especially female role models with whom the youth can identify with, the digital divide or lack of connectivity and the lack of qualified teachers/professionals in high schools to teach specialised subjects.  Girl children in rural communities especially need to deal with stereotypes that influence their worldviews, such as the assumption that men are better scientists. This, to a large extent, is caused by the lack of mentoring by women scientists. It is clear that there is greater need to promote and profile women scientists in our communities. Moreover, the youth needs to be treated as an essential part of development in science and should be given a platform to express their views on topical issues in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI).

They felt that the youth should be exposed to the many opportunities that are available to them. Governments need to create spaces to allow for a high level of knowledge and skills transfer on a practical level. These spaces should provide platforms for collaboration with like-minded people. The panellists indicated that technology is a big enabler during the pandemic in an effort to deal with societal challenges. Young scientists also need to be made aware of the need for social impact through integrating the SDGs into their research. Working on SDGs needs a transdisciplinary approach that allows collaborative interdisciplinary studies amongst young scientists to contribute to finding science-based solutions that will have an impact on in-country and foreign policies.

Ms Louisa Herenghan closed the session by referring to the change of mindset and perspectives that are naturally brought to the table by young scientists. Science, technology and innovation can empower young people and there should be a focus on mentorship, role models and representation. Young people bring innovation and a broad perspective, and they need support for the system to benefit. She thanked all the partners and concluded that the Embassy of Ireland is looking forward to the next collaboration to address more of these issues.