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Science and science teaching are at a global crossroads

- Nithaya Chetty

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.

South African universities are grappling with a number of challenges, many of which are inherently South African in character and by nature parochial, but critically important nonetheless. However, 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 we are working. 

Successful universities the world over are deeply connected with the social, economic and political environment they serve. Universities should, however, operate independently as they are not factories or political tools, and they do not need charismatic leaders as might armies and churches. Universities are collectives, and so open, critical discourse based on democratic principles is essential for their successful operation. I don’t believe universities should blandly surrender to outside pressures, but should actively and critically engage with them. This is our time-honoured compact with society.

The challenge for us is that the environment for higher education, training and research has changed over the recent past, not only in South Africa, but also internationally. 

Socio-economic and political challenges for science


There is an increasing number of national imperatives that universities need to consider in deciding how they wish to position themselves. For instance, since the dawn of our democracy, there has been a push for broadening access to higher education as increasingly now we need to accommodate more students with different prior experiences, different goals and ambitions, and different levels of preparedness. Importantly, transformation of our universities has included calls to diversify the professoriate and to change the culture of doing things. 

The weak economy suggests we should increasingly prepare our students more directly for the job market. There are cries for a stronger focus on practical skills development, almost akin to vocational training in some instances. There is an expectation that, as academics and researchers, we will make more direct contributions to marketable innovations, and be more inventive with developing practical applications and solutions to everyday problems. Our funding agents call for research programmes with more direct relevance to South Africa. There are, thus, enormous pressures now for curriculum reform, and invariably arguments for decolonisation with all of its political ramifications also come up in this context. 

Coupled to the above, a burgeoning agenda for African development is being set by the AU Agenda 2063, and looking further afield, the global socio-economic and political environment for change is being defined fairly comprehensively by the UN Millennium Development Goals. These are further considerations that universities are being asked to take on board to frame their own research and teaching programmes if they are going to be relevant for the future. 

The challenges for science in the 21st century do not end there. A real problem that we face today is that truth is increasingly undervalued, and scientific research is becoming politicised, for example in the context of climate change. This is a scourge that is growing worldwide, including in the developed world. 

It is a problem that the effort required to advance knowledge for societal benefit is not always understood and appreciated by society, including by our decision-makers, and this is becoming a worldwide problem. The need for an independent, critical academy is not always appreciated either, and on the contrary, 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. We certainly need more discussion on how we should change, and this will remain a hotly contested area in the planning for the future of our universities for many years to come. 

It is becoming difficult to discriminate between real and bogus information that is “out there” because much of the information on the internet has not been sufficiently tested for veracity and truth. In this day and age, lies can easily be propagated at a phenomenal rate. For universities, which should pride themselves on uncovering the truth, this is debilitating. In this environment, it is also becoming more difficult to counter plagiarism and protect intellectual property, matters that are of profound importance for our universities. 

Further global challenges for science

There are increasing substantive challenges in academia that are putting further pressures on the academic enterprise in the world. Across a majority of disciplines now, we are moving into the era of extremely large data sets. We need a smarter means of coping with this, from storing the data in a secure manner to transporting that data, accessing the data and mining that data intelligently for research purposes and decision-making. 

This means an increasing number of researchers across many different disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, need to become more computationally competent. Alternatively, these researchers need to be transitioning to work in larger multidisciplinary teams to resolve their quantitative problems more effectively, and this need is set to grow in the future. However, I don’t think that this transition is happening at a sufficiently fast rate. 

The worldwide science system has become enormous, and it is proving to be extremely difficult to keep up with research outputs in one’s own narrow research area of interest, let alone more broadly in science. This flood of information is overwhelming and difficult to cope with. We need smarter ways to keep up or we run the risk of duplicating effort and lagging behind. 

On the topic of peer-reviewed publications, 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, some of which are raking in billions of US dollars. 

The entire world of publications in this age of the internet is in a process of radical change. Our academics will do well to contemplate the pros and cons of open access, and actively participate in the worldwide discussions currently taking place in this regard, for example, the proposed European Plan S. 

Developing science responsibly

It should concern us that there are enormous disparities in science around the world, which demands that we 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 large multinational collaborations. We must ask how can we participate more effectively, especially from the southern tip of Africa. This is where the rest of Africa is falling dreadfully behind because there has been very little commitment from many African countries north of our borders to invest in scientific research infrastructures and people development. This will continue to hold Africa back in terms of its own development. 

We are globally connected through the internet, which means we are also susceptible to a new threat of international terror that relates to breaches in cybersecurity. I doubt the developing world is giving this sufficient attention. Ways in which some international agencies and governments are protecting themselves from cyberattacks are top secret for obvious reasons, which means many countries in the developing world are left in the dark and need to figure out their own solutions. We need to invest in our own programmes to interrogate cybersecurity for our own wellbeing and 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 very successfully exploited for commercial gain and societal improvements, and much of the science system the world over today is designed to push scientists in the direction of more relevance. The applications of science coupled with critical thought have been essential in solving many problems facing society. Usually, that impact has been positive, but not always. 

There has been collateral damage and unintended consequences along the way, eg plastics in our oceans, and other harmful effects on our environment. The military has been a strong supporter of science over the decades in many countries, including apartheid South Africa. Here, science has been driven in particular ways to gain superior might. 

Many authoritarian states, such as North Korea, have invested significantly in a very narrow set of scientific endeavours and technologies with a singular purpose in mind. Through the millennia, there has always been the potential for scientific outputs to be misused, from the time the simple domestic knife was invented. Science in the wrong hands can be catastrophic. I see that the climate for the misuse of science is growing even more today. 

Some of the more difficult questions academics need to think about relate to consequences of the rapidly increasing world population and the enormous stresses this places on our resources and our environment. This is already resulting in a power struggle for limited resources, 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 boggle the mind, then, to think about what this could imply in terms of the potential for increasing unethical behaviour towards our fellow human beings, for example, in terms of mass exterminations of populations and human experimentation. 

The worldwide environment for blatant cruelty towards our fellow inhabitants on this planet is set to grow. We should think deeply about this and how we as academics can try to counter these tendencies in the only ways that we know, which is to identify the problem early on, and propose solutions including changes to policy well before the problem gets beyond our control, and before we self-destruct. 

The need for more public support

History will show that so much has been accomplished by so few with so little over the past 100 years. This period has been unprecedented in the history of the human race. It is difficult to believe that the electron was discovered a little more than 100 years ago, and through science and the applications of science, through technology, industrialisation and commercialisation, and sheer ingenuity, humans have been able to harness the fullest potential of the electron to fundamentally change the way in which we have come to live our lives, not only in a technical sense, but also in a social sense. This tiny fundamental particle has come to define our age, namely the electronic age. 

This stunning growth over a short period of time does raise unrealistic expectations by the public that new scientific ideas and technologies that are in dire need to solve our new challenges for the 21st century will emerge just as easily, just as rapidly and just as cheaply, with a snap of a finger so to speak. Wrong! 

Our universities are working under extremely tight fiscal constraints where we are increasingly being asked to do much more with much less at a time when we are under enormous pressures to aspire to be world-class. Science needs much more support for the public good. 

Looking ahead

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 right at our universities, so that we can build a stronger basis to be world-class. We need to be excellent in all aspects of the academic enterprise including our management, operations, teaching and learning, research, and external engagements. 

Our universities in South Africa have been in this fragile state of stress for long now, and one must wonder whether we will ever settle and usher in an era of stability to begin to focus on the basic things our universities should be involved in, in an unhindered way.

A successful and prosperous South Africa depends on a modern, scientifically literate and technically competent workforce, and here our universities have a central role to play. We must all come around to understand the precious resource that our universities are for the needs of the country. We need to engage more intelligently and constructively with each other within and without the university, or we will destroy the idea of the university. We are but temporary custodians of the institutions that we inherit. The hope and expectation is that we will build on the foundations laid by others over the years, and leave them in a better state than we found them.

Nithaya Chetty is professor of physics and Dean-elect of the Faculty of Science at the University of Witwatersrand. This article was first published on the Daily Maverick.