/ 1 November 2019

Build bond between science and society

Build bond between science and society
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)




The country’s universities are grappling with a number of problems, many of which are inherently South African in character and by nature parochial but critically important nonetheless. The worldwide environment for research and higher education has changed markedly compared with barely a generation ago, and it is not clear how South African universities are giving sufficient attention to the broader international contexts in which they are working.

Many of our universities have long been in a fragile state of stress. This has made for an acrimonious, in-ward-looking environment that is often lacking in trust between the many different voices in and outside the university. It will do us well to look above the parapet to consider what is going on beyond our immediate needs and wants, or we will forever be trapped as a “second-class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves”, as the 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology stated.

Well beyond our immediate confines, the challenges for science in the 21st century are immense and are set to grow. A real problem we face is that truth is increasingly being undervalued, and scientific research is becoming politicised, for example in the context of climate change.

It is a problem that the effort required to advance knowledge for societal benefit is not always understood and appreciated. The need for an independent, critical academy is not always appreciated either; on the contrary it is often seen to be a threat in many autocratic regimes.

Most, but not all, citizens of the world have free and easy access to information, which begs the question: Are our universities becoming less relevant? They will be if we do not adjust our educational and research systems accordingly. It is becoming difficult to discriminate between real and bogus information because much of the information on the internet has not been sufficiently tested for truth. For universities, which should pride themselves on uncovering the truth, this is debilitating. It is also becoming more difficult to counter plagiarism and protect intellectual property.

Across a majority of disciplines, we are moving into the era of large data sets. We need a smarter means of mining data intelligently for research purposes and for decision-making. An increasing number of researchers across the disciplines need to become much more involved in the methods of data science. I doubt that this is happening quickly enough.

The worldwide science system has become enormous and this flood of information is overwhelming. We need smarter ways to stay connected.

It has finally dawned on academics and universities that they should not be paying such exorbitant costs to access publicly funded research and in so doing enrich large corporations. The world of publications in this age of the internet is in a process of radical change. It will do our academics well to contemplate the pros and cons of open access.

It should concern us that there are enormous disparities in science around the world, which demands that we need to think more deeply about how we can develop science more extensively on a global scale for the common good of all of humanity.

The big science questions need big — meaning expensive — research infrastructures. This calls for large multidisciplinary teams and multinational collaborations. How can we participate more effectively, especially from the southern tip of Africa? This is where the rest of Africa is falling behind because there has been little commitment from them to invest in scientific research infrastructures and in people’s development. This will continue to hold Africa back in terms of its development.

We are globally connected though the internet, which means that we are also susceptible to a new threat of international terror that relates to breaches in cybersecurity. We need to invest in our own programmes to interrogate cybersecurity for our own wellbeing and for national security.

Open-ended, unfettered science in its purest form has, over the centuries, been pursued in the interest of understanding nature in a fundamental way, and long may that continue. Scientific ideas and discoveries have often been successfully exploited for commercial gain and for societal improvements, and much of the science system today the world over is designed to push scientists in the direction of more relevance. Usually, that effect has been positive, but not always.

There has been collateral damage and unintended consequences along the way, for example, plastics in our oceans, and other harmful effects on our environment. The military has been a strong supporter of science. Here, science has been driven in particular ways to gain superior might. Many authoritarian states have invested significantly in a very narrow set of scientific endeavours and technologies with a singular purpose in mind. Science in the wrong hands can be catastrophic.

We need to think about the consequences of the rapidly increasing world population and the stresses this places on resources, which is already resulting in a power struggle over them, with the ensuing growing disparities between rich and poor nations. The future of the human race depends on us finding more intelligent answers to our difficult questions, and here our researchers have a central role to play.

With the rapidly increasing world population one can conclude that, purely from a statistical viewpoint, each life is becoming less significant. It should concern us that this could imply a growing threat for unethical behaviour towards our fellow human beings. The worldwide environment for cruelty toward our fellow inhabitants on this planet is set to grow. We should think deeply about this and how we academics can try to counter these tendencies before we self-destruct.

History will show that so much has been accomplished in science by so few with so little over the past 100 years. This period has been unprecedented in the history of the human race, but it does raise unrealistic expectations that new scientific ideas and technologies that are in dire need to solve our new problems for the 21st century will emerge just as easily. Wrong!

Our universities are working under tight fiscal constraints in which we are increasingly being asked to do much more with much less at a time when we are under enormous pressure to aspire to be world class. Science needs much more support for the public good. We need a stronger bond between science and society or else we will fall behind in terms of our own development.

In striving to be nationally responsive and world class, we must be connected with the global environment that frames science. We should be consolidating and setting the foundations at our universities, so that we can build a stronger basis to be world-class. A successful and prosperous South Africa depends on a modern, scientifically literate and technically competent workforce, and in here our universities have a central role to play.

Nithaya Chetty is professor of physics at the University of Pretoria and dean-elect of the faculty of science at the University of Witwatersrand. He writes in his personal capacity