The conundrum of the sciences – social or natural – which matters more?

To most of us the apparent conundrum in contemporary life is obvious. Despite significant advances in some areas – both globally and in South Africa, the quality of our lives and wellbeing, social cohesion, appreciation of identity, access to resources and opportunities, healthcare, job security, peace and stability — just to name a few areas — are increasingly fragile.

This puzzle is amplified when we realise that we have never had such immediate access to superior technology and information. Dr Michio Kaku, author and theoretical physicist at the City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Centre, says it best: “Today the mobile phone has more computer power than all of Nasa back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon.” Most of us in South Africa, despite our economic standing, have access to this astounding technology in the palms of our hands.

In the global healthcare domain, cancer is one example where there is a disconnect between access to information and solutions. This is despite significant progress in research, with real breakthroughs. While patients can access new treatments faster than ever, an end is not in sight for this disease. According to America’s National Cancer Institute, “the number of new cancer cases will rise to 22 million within the next two decades” with “more than 60% of the world’s new cancer cases [occurring] in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America [which will also record] 70% of the world’s cancer deaths.” Why is this, with the incredible advances in understanding the pathology of this disease?

The same disconnect is seen when one looks at poverty and inequality, globally and particularly in South Africa. Dr Jean Triegaardt, writing in his 2006 paper Poverty and inequality in South Africa: Policy considerations in an emerging democracy, surmises that although “poverty and inequality have co-existed for generations both in developed and developing nations, and in spite of the multiple interventions, the progress in eliminating this problem remains elusive”.

Despite South Africa’s awareness of how poverty and inequality impacts millions of citizens, levels have only increased and today the country has the dubious distinction of being the most unequal society in the world.

Economist and philosopher Amartya Sen wrote in 2000 that “human lives are bettered and diminished in all kinds of different ways, and the first task … is to acknowledge that deprivations of very different kinds have to be accommodated within a general overarching framework”.

Many plans around the world recognise and accept this premise and the need for holistic programmes that impact positively on development and wellbeing. Internationally the Millennium Development Goals were adopted by global leaders in 2000, which were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Africa has for the first time conceived of an overarching long-term and holistic development plan, Agenda 2063. South Africa has had various plans since 1994 and now has the National Development Plan.

The question then is why, when we know so much, with so much technology at our disposal and despite so many advances, is the sustained improvement of the human condition still elusive. What are we missing? What do we need to know that we do not? How do we get to where we need to go?

Perhaps the answer could lie in greater collaboration between the social and natural sciences? Both hold important answers to the solutions that are required to better the lives of global citizens and reduce deprivations of various kinds as envisaged by Sen. The natural sciences underpin our understanding of how to manage the world’s natural resources and can drive innovations in almost every field.

At the same time, Bent Flyvbjberg’s 2001 book Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Science Fails and How it can succeed again says: “This discipline can, and should be sensitive to context, show connections between phenomena, courses of action and events and engage with social and political actors in dialogue, thereby facilitating answers to age-old value questions like ‘how should we live’ and ‘what is to be done?’ ”

Expanding upon this, Jonathan Michie in his 2015 paper ‘Why the social sciences matter’ explains that indeed a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborative approach is required to tackle some of the resistant, and deeply complex, challenges facing humanity at large.

Despite the acknowledgement for complementarity and the real contribution of the social sciences, there is a global move towards prioritising funding for the natural sciences, and those in the technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines in particular at the expense of the social sciences.

According to Sir Cary Cooper, the most decorated American psychologist in England, this is paradoxical since the best science, technology and mathematics in the world, all the greatest engineering, all the greatest medical research would be “for naught” if people did not accept these outcomes and change their behaviour.

Interesting, despite our many challenges and weak economic growth, South Africa is on the right track in respect of investment in research in the social sciences and humanities. The 2014/15 National Survey of Research and Experimental Development, commonly referred to as the R&D Survey, demonstrates that the social sciences continue to attract a growing share of gross expenditure on research and development (Gerd), with 17% of expenditure recorded in this research field, albeit with a slight decrease of 0.5% over the period.

The conundrum is exacerbated when we realise that South Africa is undeniably focused on increasing investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics areas from primary school towards a career path for our young people.

We are equally investing in the social sciences, so why are we not making real inroads in solving deeply resistant challenges that threaten all the advances made in the last 23 years of democracy?

In a recent dialogue on gender-based violence (GBV) hosted by Minister Naledi Pandor, one of the research findings indicated that food insecurity could be a factor in the abuse of women and children. GBV is widely considered to be a social and gender challenge which would place a solution in the realm of the social sciences and humanities. Food security is thought to require a hard science solution responding to, among others, climate changes, water security and the productivity of seeds. Yet, the correlation between GBV and food security tells us there is no Chinese wall between how society may experience these realities.

Those in the social and natural sciences have a great responsibility, and almost a social duty to work together as required, to develop solutions that ultimately improve the human condition. Lord Stern of Brentford, president of the British Academy writing on the website Prospering Wisely writes: “A society without thriving social sciences and humanities risks achieving at best only an arid kind of prosperity, far less rich than our creative human culture deserves — and at worst confusion, apathy, decline and conflict.”

The Human Sciences Research Council will honour a social scientist of great standing and repute in its second Annual Medal in Social Sciences and Humanities on August 31 2017.
Manusha Pillai is the director: stakeholder relations and communications at the Human Sciences Research Council

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