Creating space for ideas that change the world

We live in a global society that counts and measure everything — including the volume and impact of research.

If we count and measure in the right way, these numbers are useful, because they give us an idea of how we are doing compared to others who are engaged in the same enterprise — and it is good to know if you are generally efficient, and spending the money of your funders wisely.

But if citation indices, world rankings and the like are allowed to dictate the whole of a university’s research agenda, that university is unlikely to be an intellectual hub that shakes up the world.

Universities are complex institutions that do many different things, but in order to do one of the most important things that they are good at — namely, to renew the world through fresh ideas — the academics that populate them need four things: time; resources; diversity; and freedom. Let us consider each in turn.

First, academics need the space to think. This means that a modern university, even though it cannot avoid measuring performance, must be sensible. It must allow the time for people to tackle big projects — the big book, or the research question that takes years to answer.


And to do so, it must look at the total academic job and craft it in such a way that it does not crush the delight of discovery, of invention, and of meaningful thought. Only then can we expect our universities to astonish us with their ideas.

Secondly, they need abundant resources. At a recent research indaba at our university, my colleague William Bond from the Botany Department made the following cri du coeur: “Don’t give us money, give us time.” He is right; but alas, in the end — although merely having money is no guarantee of success — we cannot do without the resources.

The Government, the universities and the individual researchers all contribute to channelling money into the research pot. However, the Government’s commitment to research funding is the sine qua non.

Without that, the benefits that universities bring — both internally (by virtue of their support for and stimulation of development) and externally (by virtue of their enabling South Africa to hold its own in global competition) — will be muted.

Fortunately, the Department of Science and Technology has demonstrated in various ways that it is serious about funding research, for example by rolling out the South African Research Chairs Initiative, establishing Centres of Excellence, and by setting ambitious targets for improving the spending on research as a percentage of GDP.

It recently announced a further R255-million in research support this year. The Department of Higher Education and Training of course also provides considerable subisidies to universities based on search output. This brings us to the third component of success as a research university.

Academics need to work in a diverse community. We must combine the best people that we have (staff and students) with the best from the rest of our continent and the world. There is remarkable research that shows that the more diverse an institution is, the better it will be at solving problems.

Thus Scott E Page said the following in an interview with the New York Times about his remarkable book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies (2008): “New York City is the perfect example of diversity functioning well. It’s an exciting place that produces lots of innovation and creativity. It’s not a coincidence that New York has so much energy and also so much diversity.”

At UCT this diversity is exemplified by the fact that we have 232 Postdoctoral Fellows from 39 different countries registered.

Fourthly, as Jamil Salmi pointed out at a conference on World Class Universities in Shanghai on 2 November 2009, academics need freedom to be successful. Therefore we need to ensure that universities have an enabling and responsive leadership that allows academic projects to flourish.

If our universities are to make their mark in the world, we need to remember that as we measure what our academics produce, we must also measure what we give them.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Artificially dimming the sun may reduce the risk of future droughts in Cape Town

But it can't solve the climate crisis, say a team of scientists

New education policy on gender violence released

Universities and other higher education institutions have to develop ways of preventing or dealing with rape and other damaging behaviour

South African universities record 22 deaths from Covid-19

A Universities South Africa survey shows that 20 people — 19 staff members and one student — at local universities have died after contracting the coronavirus

Linton Kwesi Johnson gave poetry back to the people

The 2020 winner of the PEN Pinter Prize, LKJ’s poetry puts the ignominy and hardship of the black experience in Britain front and centre in words that echo across the decades

In a bid to placate politics on race UCT fails to protect academic freedom

The University of Cape Town’s Academic Freedom Committee has let intellectual freedom down regarding Professor Nicoli Nattrass’s commentary in the South African Journal of Science

Nattrass’s article should be retracted rather than debated

The relationship between science and ethics is inextricable and a study that does not consider the latter in its design cannot be supported
Advertising

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

Limpopo big-game farmer accused of constant harassment

A family’s struggle against alleged intimidation and failure to act by the authorities mirrors the daily challenges farm dwellers face

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…