Around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has driven a change in people’s perception of science – and overcoming the barriers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is going to be key.

Every year 3M conducts the State of Science Index (SOSI)- a survey that tracks attitudes about science amongst citizens across the globe. However, in 2020, 3M released two waves of the study – one before the pandemic (pre-pandemic wave), and a second during the pandemic (pandemic pulse wave); and while the results showed a significant shift in perceptions about science as a whole, South Africa had different core themes to that of other markets.

“Although the global survey’s encompassing themes show that the image of science is on the rise, for South Africa, barriers to STEM education are clearly still a factor when it comes to using science to solve critical issues,” said Robert Nichols, MD for Middle East and Africa at 3M.

Topline themes for South Africa

According to SOSI 2020, when considering major issues that science can solve, South Africans believe that apart from healthcare, environmental issues are top of mind. This compared to global markets that indicated that social justice was their main priority aside from healthcare.

Locally, access to clean water (53% versus 42% globally), followed by climate change (43% versus 49% globally) are the top environmental concerns. Surprisingly, the respondents see environmental issues as more important for science to solve than hunger (34%), infrastructure (27%) and online data breaches (16%).

While the first may be a bit surprising, the second – access to STEM education is not. Most respondents agreed that more STEM workers are needed but, that not enough people are actually considering it – with only one in four Gen-Zers and Millennials (aged 18- 38) planning to pursue a STEM career in the future.

The final theme for South Africans was about leadership in science as a shared responsibility. The majority surveyed believe that the government was not meeting expectations in supporting science and felt that governments should be more involved in solving environmental issues today, such as air quality and renewable energy. Yet, half (49%) rate government/politicians as doing a poor job in advocating for science.

“As we face some of the world’s biggest challenges today, the private and public sector need to collaborate better to ensure that sustainable and accessible solutions are found and as a science company, we are absolutely committed to that call,” concludes Nichols.

Key South Africa differentiators

South Africans are more likely to recognise the value STEM skills brings to a variety of careers and are more likely to completely agree that most careers in the future will require some understanding of science (39% versus 26% globally). However, a lack of access to a good STEM education, especially in underserved and underrepresented groups, remains a barrier to STEM careers.

Furthermore, two in five South Africans (39% versus 32% globally) cite a lack of diversity as one of the biggest challenges those in STEM careers are facing and that children in low income households are less likely to participate in STEM activities than high income households, according to their parents (16 point gap between high and low income).

And, while an alarming 80% of respondents said that science education in South Africa needs an overhaul, they believe that there is room to improve STEM education, especially in the midst of a shortage of qualified candidates, and although they turn to government to help solve these issues, they place significant responsibility on the private sector as well.

Trends over time

Even though in 2020, it took a health crisis to significantly shift trust in science and scientific analysis, South Africa’s results from the last few years of SOSI reveal that there has been consistent improvement over time.

Most significantly is the decrease in South African’s believing that the country is falling behind when it comes to scientific advancements compared to other countries (66% in 2020 vs. 61% in 2019, 61% in 2018). Also, in 2020 80% of South Africans stated they are less likely to believe that South Africa places a lower value on science than other countries, compared to 79% believing this in 2019.

Most encouragingly though is that with the alarming spread of fake or false news, over the last two years, respondents have become more sceptical of uncorroborated sources of scientific information including those from social media (71% in 2020 versus 67% in 2019), colleagues (64% in 2020 versus 57% in 2019) and friends or family (55% in 2020 versus 49% in 2019), presenting an opportunity for trusted public and private sources to lead conversations about science.