The Brain Trust

So on New Year’s Day, I found myself trawling the interwebs looking for some inspiration. It’s just that sometimes, as Eminem would say, “You’ve gotta find that inner strength… and get that motivation…” So I ended up reading this interview given by Charles Townes to Achievement.org. Charles Townes is the scientist responsible for the invention of maser, laser and outer space exploration via radio frequency analysis. It’s a very remarkable interview by the Nobel Prize Winner. He was also part of the overview team for getting Neil Armstrong onto the moon in 1969 and has provided advisory support in SALT talks. Seeing as 2014’s KCPE results had recently come out, it got me thinking about a particular gap in our education system.

We are seriously under-harnessing our best and our brightest.

The critical success factor for nations nowadays is what we might call the brain trust, ie the skills and intellectual firepower that can be marshalled for any given issue. It is said that Germany has an annual meeting of about 300 economists every year who debate the policy requirements of the nation. It is no wonder that they own Europe. In short, if we are to fully take advantage of our resources and the opportunities around us, we must harness the brain trust available to us. There is biblical precedence for this. Israel’s tribe of Levi were their lawyers, judges, health scientists and advised kings and governments.

There is a very interesting link on Quora on what life is like for very intelligent people. Quora is a site which crowd-sources answers, experience and expertise. As one person put it, “You go to Google to get an answer. You go to Quora to get a response.”  Many respondents on that particular question went to schools for gifted children. This is very useful because one answer points out that while normal people have trouble figuring things out, geniuses have trouble fitting in. So this kind of environment, ie schools for the gifted, is a safe environment for them to nurture their gift instead of burying it in the sand. Otherwise all their brainpower could easily go to waste cooking up mischief and so forth.

There was an article somewhere on the interwebs about a young fellow who graduated post-doctorate from MIT at the tender age of 16 or so. And is allowed to meander around campus and do his own research. That is important. A fellow like that has difficulties relating to the rest of us lesser mortals. Big Bang Theory certainly makes that clear to us. (God bless their souls!) A fellow like that may produce only 2 papers in his life, but would be of ground-breaking scope similar to Einstein’s e=mc^2. The sooner he produces those papers the better 🙂

Brain drain is real.

Case in point is Equity’s Wings to Fly program, especially the part used to airlift Kenyans into American universities. The architect behind wings to Fly is one exceptional man by the name of Mr. C.S. Khaemba who was once the principal of Alliance High School (AHS). He mastered the art of getting students into Ivy League colleges, then exported this art to Equity Bank. Unfortunately for us, a statistically significant number of our best and brightest always flew out to the States to pursue studies and ended up staying there. In 2008 for example the number one at AHS was an absolute genius called Sammy Sambu. Sambu was never defeated in academics in high school. The only time this happened, he had been out on an exchange program in the US for most of the term. The following term, he was back at the top. He went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, has completed his Master’s studies there and might be part of the faculty of either MIT or Harvard (as I ponder the meaning of my life lol).

Another example of this brain drain is another old boy of AHS who studied his undergrad in either Boston or Philadelphia. He must have studied cryptography or the like because from there he went on to work at either the Pentagon or the CIA. Nowadays when he visits his mother he arrives unannounced. He cannot tell his mother that he’s around. I must say that sounds like an interesting life. (Ding dong! Haiya ni wewe!)

There was a class-mate in high school with whom I used to spar intellectually. (Not Sammy Sambu!) We singled each other out as personal hate-figures on the basketball court in the very first month of high school! Such competition can be healthy. He had been to a Montessori school early in his education, while I had spent a portion of my childhood buried in Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, a few encyclopaedias and so forth. So upon entering high school, our level of exposure to the outside world was a tad higher than the majority of our classmates. The point here is that his early training made a difference in him. As we speak he is an aspiring polymath in the US. His contributions will likely benefit the US more than Kenya.

Once upon a time I managed to get some significant face-time with our associate pastor, who is a very widely travelled man. He told me he has routinely met with Kenyan geniuses who look back on 20 years of research in foreign lands and so forth. One told him with tears in his eyes that he wished he had developed the motherland. The 2 founders of KEMRI were other old boys of AHS who realised that they could do much more for their country by coming and building a medical research institute that caters to the needs of a tropical environment and so forth. Kudos to them.

This is not to say that Kenyans living outside the country are wrong in any way. As a child of educationists, I can authoritatively say Moi’s disdain for matters academic or progressive was a serious encumberment.  I would definitely not have minded a more conducive environment for academicians and educationists locally.

In his book Invention, Norbert Wiener discusses how ground breaking inventions and innovations come around. There has to be a conducive environment for this kind of thing. Universities, research and development budgets, intellectual discussion forums and so forth. As a son of generations of educationists, I know that a considerable portion of the blame for this sad state of affairs lies in the mismanagement of education under the Moi regime. Kibaki in his characteristically quiet way swiftly went about correcting this, licencing myriad universities.

Recently, India managed to get a space mission in orbit around Mars. On a shoe string budget. This tweet captures the poignancy of that moment. I don’t know whether that gets your hamsters running upstairs, but really, Africa should be staking a bit of a claim in this kind of action. One thing I admire about India’s educational system is their Institutes of Technology. India’s Institutes of Technology boast lower acceptance rates than MIT or Harvard. That quality is not wasted. IIT’s graduates are so skilled that a lot of the world’s research and development work is done in India.

In the grand scheme of things, universities are ideal for basic research of the type where e=mc^2 comes from. Polytechnics on the other hand should be churning out technologists who can compete globally in any industry. Peter Drucker is on record that America’s competitive edge is its technologists (polytechnic graduates). I guess nowadays its real competitive advantage might be fracking. But there’s a reason why I am saying this. China’s population is so large that the number of geniuses in the country is almost equivalent to the number of students in the American tertiary education system. China’s geniuses, ‘force-multiplied’ against China’s R&D budget, which is fast approaching America’s, can only have one outcome in the long run.

For example, we have recently seen technological innovations that enable greenhouse agriculture devoid of soil. Instead of soil there are plastic granules which do not absorb water. While this technology is being hailed as a recent breakthrough, it has been in use in China for the past 10 years. Another example of this gap is that a number of young Kenyans are studying medicine in China. I happened to speak with one such graduand and she told me that she ‘discovered’ a herb that grows wild in Western Kenya which is very useful in the fight against either diabetes or prostate cancer. These examples just go to reinforce the fact that the technological differences between China and the US need to be analysed and understood for our own benefit.

Off the top of my head, here are a number of changes which we need to see in our education and technology system. Some are cost-effective while others are more cash-intensive.

  1. Some basic respect for intellectual property would help. For example software cannot be patented in Kenya. This is wrong.
  2. Universities should create partner programs with the best and the brightest. Rwanda’s Carnegie Mellon University and Dubai’s New York University come to mind.
  3. We should beef up our National Academy of Sciences both in terms of mandate and muscle.
  4. There should be tax breaks for Research and development as well as tech-heavy investment. Pharmaceutical research for Africa should be centred here in Kenya. We import a disproportionate percentage of our drugs whereas we could be keeping those currency flows in-country.
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