Science Forum South Africa puts the spotlight on overlooked social sciences

Scientists and researchers need to contextualise their work in our socio-economic reality, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor told an audience at Science Forum South Africa (SFSA) last week.

SFSA, in its second year, aims to showcase science in the country and “ignite conversation around science”. This year, it focused on the social sciences, with many of the sessions dealing directly with problems facing South Africa: a debate on the minimum and living wage; why do 60% of students at South African universities drop out?

“Inspiration drawn from the life and combat of President Mandela, and the values enshrined in South Africa’s constitution, should provide the context for our work, also within the area of science, technology and innovation,” Pandor said at the closing ceremony.

But the social sciences — those that study human society and social relationships — are often ignored.

“When people talk about the importance of the sciences, I have to ask: ‘But what about the social sciences?’” said Cheryl de la Rey, head of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria.

Although less likely to grab news headlines, social sciences and humanities have been consistently garnering more funding in South Africa. Between 2004 and 2013-14, the percentage of the country’s total R&D funding allocated to the social sciences and humanities increased significantly from 12.4% in 2004-05 to 19.8% in 2013-14.

But in South Africa, and Africa as a whole, science lags behind other countries.

“We have too few scientists, inadequate publication and innovation achievements and poorly resourced science institutions,” Pandor said at the forum opening.

But at the same time there is progress: “More and more African researchers are broadening their horizons and engaging in much-needed projects in food security, energy, transport, and health (malaria and HIV),” Pandor said. “This has seen the number of papers from African researchers double in just over a decade, improving in quantity, quality, and international citation according to data from Scopus, the largest database of peer-reviewed literature.”

Science — including social science — is more important than ever, said the European Commission’s Wolfgang Burtscher.

As social media becomes ever more pervasive, and emotional untruths on the internet trump facts, we need science. “We need evidence-based policymaking,” Burtscher said. “We should not succumb to the temptations of a post-truth society. Evidence, facts, must remain the yardsticks for progress.”

Open science forums, such as this one, with their peculiar mix of science, topical issues and less jargon than traditional science conferences, is one way of promoting evidence and understanding.

“If we are going to achieve the sustainable development goals, including through science, technology and innovation, then the spirit of ubuntu should be our guiding light,” Pandor said.

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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