Where are the Black science laureates?
By Lekan Oguntoyinbo NNPA Columnist
Each October, I look forward to reading about the uncanny accomplishments of Nobel Prize winners, particularly those in medicine, science and economics. Their stories are parables about persistence and the capacity of the human mind to do amazing things.
This year, for example, through the work of John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and her husband, Edward Moser, who won this year’s prize in medicine, we learned of the existence of a collection of cells that serve as a type of GPS for the brain. Eric Betzig, Stefan Well and William Moerner, who won the prize for chemistry, developed a method to be able to more closely track proteins while studying diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Amazing, life changing stuff.
Still, when I read these stories I can’t help but ask: where are the Black science laureates?
To be sure, several Blacks have won the Nobel – but mostly for peace and literature. In 1950, Ralph Bunche became the first Black to win the Nobel Peace Prize. South African Albert Luthuli followed in 1960 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964. Since then, several other Blacks – including Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – have won the award. In 1986, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka became the first Black to win the literature prize. Two other Blacks – poet Derek Walcott of St. Lucia and Toni Morrison – won the award in the 1990s.
But outside of literature and peace, only one Black has won the Nobel – William Arthur Lewis, a native of St. Lucia, who won for economics in 1979. The Nobel Prize awards began in 1901, and in medicine, physics, chemistry and economics the winners remain overwhelmingly white and Asian. This achievement gap in the sciences speaks to a broader issue in math and science education for Blacks in the United States and in predominantly Black countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
In the United States, African Americans continue to be over-represented in certain fields, including education and social work as well as the arts and humanities. But Blacks made up only 7.1 percent of science and engineering degree holders in 2011 between the ages of 25 and 64, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In contrast, whites made up about 10 times the number of math and science degree holders at 70.7 percent. Many universities continue to struggle to recruit and retain minorities for seats in STEM programs, particularly at the graduate level. Some historically Black institutions, such as Fisk University, have teamed up with elite universities such as cross-town Vanderbilt University, to create more Black STEM doctoral degree holders.
In most parts of Africa, where public education is either dead or on life support and university systems have been in decline for decades, science and math education is particularly weak. And although many higher education institutions there offer degrees in engineering, science and technology, those degrees are often viewed with suspicion by universities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, which seldom recognize them because of a perception that the African graduates are poorly prepared.
A survey of the math and science skills of school-age children in 148 countries conducted earlier this year by the World Economic Forum ranked three European countries – Finland, Belgium and Switzerland – in the top five. Singapore and Lebanon also made the top five. Three African countries – South Africa, Angola and Egypt – were ranked in the bottom five. The Dominican Republic, a pre-dominantly Black nation, and Honduras rounded out the bottom five.
The irony is that Blacks have a long and distinguished history in math and science. The math, science and engineering exploits of Africans in ancient Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are well known. Far less known are the accomplishments of Black scientists in the last century in fields like parasitology, plant science, medicine and engineering. Far less known are the accomplishments of Charles Drew, a physician who developed a method for storing blood; Lewis Latimer, who helped develop the telephone and a longer lasting light bulb; or Garrett Morgan, who developed the gas mask and helped modernize the traffic light.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the demand for jobs in the STEM and health fields will continue to rise in coming decades. There are similar projections around the world. A good education in law, the arts and the humanities feeds the soul and is important for a well-rounded education but expertise in science, technology and health can uplift a people.
World Bank official Makhtar Diop said as much earlier this year when the bank announced a grant of $150 million to universities in seven African countries to help advance STEM education there.
He said, “I can think of no better way to grow African economies, create jobs, and support research in Africa, than educating young graduates with expertise in high-demand areas such as chemical engineering, crop science, and the control of infectious diseases.”