The general attitude towards science and the usage of the word ‘scientist’ in Nigeria

In Nigeria, if you call yourself a scientist you are scolded. You are quickly attacked with questions like “you call yourself a scientist what have you discovered?” but the irony is that you hardly get this question if you call yourself a chemist, biologist, physicist or mathematician, probably only because they think you are only telling them what you studied in school.

As students and graduates of pure sciences, we ‘proudly’ call ourselves chemists, physicists, biologist or mathematicians depending on our disciplines because we have friends who call themselves economist, sociologist, accountants, etc., but we barely call ourselves scientists. The word was too heavy for us.

I remember in the days of my undergraduate industrial training in SheSTCo – a research institute in the capital of Nigeria, a professor rebuked a fellow trainee who referred to himself as a scientist during a seminar presentation. He said, “even with a master degree you are not even a scientist”.

In this society, the word, scientist can best be compared to words like astronaut, spaceship, or snow. Nigerians mostly use these words when referring to white people, advanced countries, or Hollywood movies and hardly when referring to the next Nigerian or Nigeria as a country because whatever these words represents are alien and transcendent to the majority of the Nigerian society.

When average Nigerians hear the word, scientist, the picture that comes to their mind is that of a white man in a white lab coat making big magical discoveries like time travel or a syrup that can make someone invisible. This is what Hollywood – the only teacher smart enough to tell them who a scientist is, taught them. With these picture in their head it becomes very difficult to see a Nigerian next door as a scientist.

Here, the most tangible science is seen as very abstract if not as magic hence the word, “oyibo magic”, meaning white people’s magic. Many Nigerians even believe discoveries and inventions by the advance world come from knowledge gotten from witchcraft. There is disconnect between the Nigerian culture and modern science. One of the reason for this is that Nigerians are nurtured not to ask questions as children. They discourage curiosity making the saying, “curiosity killed the cat” very popular in the country. Secondly they hardly engage in endeavors without direct and immediate benefit.

They can’t relate well with the pure sciences because they can’t see any direct and immediate benefit in engaging in them. It is common to hear even a university graduate asking questions like, “why would anyone in his/her right senses attend a university to study chemistry”, biology, physics or mathematics? To them if is not medicine, engineering, computer science, pharmacy or nursing, it is a waste of resources and a shortcut to poverty.

The Nigerian society relate well and better with science-related profession like medicine, pharmacy, engineering, piloting etc. because these professions come with direct and immediate benefits. This mentality has resulted to a system whereby pure scientists are mostly trained to be teachers so as to train doctors, pharmacists, engineers, pilot etc. For this reason when an average Nigerian looks at those in the pure sciences all he or she sees is a secondary school teacher.

Education in Nigeria has too little to do with curiosity, hunger for knowledge or the need to solve problem. It is all about titles and earning a living. Even the pure scientists in Nigeria are guilty of this. Most of them are in pure sciences today because they couldn’t get into medical or engineering school even after several try. After grumbling through school, many Nigerian graduates with science degrees find themselves in a dilemma. They learnt too little science in school and so cannot compete to become a lecturer or a researcher, and they don’t have the qualification for a non-science job.

Before coming to conclusion let’s have a look from another angle. By international standard are most Nigerian lecturers or researchers qualified to be called scientists? That is the question many Nigerians are asking. Lecturers and researchers in Nigeria are known to carry out research mostly for the sake of publishing articles required for job promotion. They are not driven by hunger for knowledge or desire to solve problems. Like the policy makers and bureaucrats, the pay so little attention to science development. Some would argue that the science practiced in the country is obsolete and insignificant. There is hardly any discovery from universities or research centers.

If Science is discovery, then where there is hardly any discovery there is hardly any science and where there is hardly any science there is hardly any scientist.


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