The importance of Science

Ignorance helps polio kill children.

UP to at least a decade ago, Malaysian students, particularly those who went abroad to further their studies, fit the stereotype of the “typical” Asian student — annoyingly good at Mathematics and Science; the product of a school system that set a high standard for both subjects. This standard helped set the country on the way to having a reasonable percentage of engineers, doctors and scientists that it needed to be a progressive, developed nation. However, the same cannot be said for today, with findings from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) showing a marked decline in Science between 2003 and last year. Set against international benchmarks, Malaysian students measured¬† low,¬† with only one per cent having an advanced understanding of the subject compared with top-ranked Singapore’s 40 per cent.

National pride aside, what does this decline on the nerd scale mean? For a country intent on achieving developed nation status by 2020, a drop in the standard of Science studies can have grave consequences. It could mean not having as many geo-engineers that we need to monitor our slopes and make sure they don’t collapse on us; mechanical engineers to ensure our dream of bringing the Internet superhighway to every village is realised; doctors and scientists to man the soon-to-be-set-up National Cancer Centre; chemists and forensic experts to help solve sophisticated crimes; or meteorologists to make sense of changing weather patterns. Science can help us advance and give us a better quality of life — one that, without imagination and knowledge, we might not even envisage being possible.

Having many doctors in the community and a population that is educated and with at least an acquaintanceship with science might also help prevent the kind of ignorance that resulted in the death of nine healthcare workers in Pakistan last week. The six women and three men, who were commissioned by the Pakistani Health Ministry to administer polio vaccinations in a United Nations-supported programme, were killed because their murderers not only did not understand that the vaccine could save the lives of millions of Pakistani children but they were also convinced that it was a Jewish conspiracy to sterilise the children. As a result, the programme has been halted temporarily, leaving Pakistan as one of only three countries in the world that still have endemic polio. The last presented case of polio in Malaysia, thankfully, was in 1991.

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