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The evolution of science and research practice

- Charlotte Mathews

How has science and research practice at Wits has evolved over a century?

Structured Light Lab | Curiosity 14: #Wits100 ©

The world is changing faster than ever. There is a massive demand from society worldwide to find answers to local and international challenges, and planetary problems too. With universities at the centre of knowledge generation, it is only natural for people to look to these institutions for solutions to climate change, geopolitical instability, inequality and economic challenges globally. However, due to the way in which universities were established traditionally, with research conducted in discipline “silos”, it has been difficult for higher education institutions to serve up the solutions to complex societal challenges.

“Problems are evolving fast – they are becoming ‘harder’ and more ‘real-world’,” says Professor Andrew Forbes of the Wits School of Physics. “There is a demand from our funders, predominately the public, to address pressing problems as well as create new knowledge.”

South African citizens indirectly fund public universities through paying taxes, a portion of which the government uses to subsidise public universities. Most research-intensive universities also require third-stream funding and donor support to produce quality research.

Since Wits started as a mining school 100 years ago, the focus has always been on enabling discovery research, applied research and innovative research, in collaboration with the public and private sectors, industry and civil society at times.

Innovative and collaborative for impact

“Research at Wits is world-class and excellent,” says Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the new Wits Innovation Centre. “The gap that I see is the conversion of research into ‘innovation’. Far too much of our excellent research ends in the publication of an academic article or the awarding of a higher degree. We need to go the next step in taking that research output into society as a product, service or new policy. The biggest obstacle in doing this is mindset.”

Dwolatzky has spearheaded a new Strategic Plan for Innovation, which includes tackling research conducted in isolation.

“In the 21st Century research environment, disciplines cannot solve the world’s problems in isolation, so there is a growing emphasis on multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches to global problems,” says Professor Ruksana Osman, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and UNESCO Research Chair in Teacher Education for Diversity and Development.

This focus on collaborative inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary research is not just encouraged in the field of human evolution, in which Wits is a global leader. It is something that Professor Lee Berger, the Phillip Tobias Chair in Palaeoanthropology, actively drives.

Berger’s team collaborates with almost every other faculty in the University. For instance, they support PhD students in zoology, archaeology, geography, palaeosciences, geology, architecture and planning, anatomy and several medical disciplines.

“The study of the past in humans should engage almost every human endeavour,” says Berger, who has been with Wits for 32 years.

“In my early career, I had a conversation with a then-deputy vice-chancellor, who told me: ‘you have a terrific research background, but you need more single-author papers, because that is how you will be judged’.”

Twenty-five years later, Berger says it is not uncommon to write papers with dozens of authors from across the world.

“Science has emerged, not as a conceptual idea of a lone genius, but one where great advances are achieved collaboratively.”

Berger has become world-famous for sharing his work, and that of his team on social media platforms, inviting scientists from all over the world to collaborate and share their knowledge, and making available the fossils that his team discovered to researchers worldwide. This has also made him extremely unpopular with some global peers who have a more “traditional” approach to science.

“I am an enormous proponent of ‘open collaboration’ and ‘open access’,” says Berger. “That means one, opening it to other scientists, which is a major mission of mine, and two, to the general public, to people who are interested in, and who are funding the science.”

From stem to steam

There are numerous other examples of highly successful cross-disciplinary collaborations at Wits.

Forbes says that because he has been allowed creative rein at Wits, his own work has expanded beyond physics to encompass groups in chemistry, engineering, health and even art. Cross-disciplinary research demands and reflects a move from focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to incorporating the arts (STEAM).

“My structured light group is now working closely with Arts Research Africa under Professor Christo Doherty in the Wits School of Arts to explore art-science innovation, through an artist-in-residence programme. The idea is to change perspectives in the route to innovation. There are not many institutions in South Africa where this is possible and we are excited as to where this might lead. This is what makes Wits special – it is always evolving in perspective and scope, to create and enhance research.”

In the last five of the 15 years that Doherty has been at Wits, he says that the changing relationship between different creative arts and research – initiating interdisciplinary research between the creative arts and “hard” sciences – has been a major step forward for the University. Previously, most creative arts programmes ended at the Master’s level.

Recently, PhD or research programmes in creative arts subjects have become possible, with students often applying an understanding of arts practices, such as materiality, embodiment or performance, to other fields of investigation.

Drawing from a diverse toolbox

Not only has the nature of research changed. “The toolkit is also evolving fast,” says Forbes. “It is now very sophisticated and embeds intelligence beyond that of just the researcher. Thinking and doing ‘the same as before’ is unlikely to make a real impact.”

Osman says that research in the 21st Century is characterised by several defining features. In the context of the wide availability of (big) data and (open) knowledge, the emphasis is on synthesis rather than collection and curation. This suggests that researchers nowadays must have a strong sense of what knowledge counts, and why.

This has resulted in research work on meta-analyses and systematic reviews. Some of Osman’s work has focused on a meta-analysis of educational policy studies and a meta-analysis of educational scholarship in higher education. She says that there is far less emphasis on discrete [separate] methodological expertise and more on researchers having a diverse toolbox of methodologies upon which to draw.

“Research is now far more driven by technology and data,” says Professor Imraan Valodia, the former Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management and now Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality.

Professor Cathi Albertyn, South African Research Chair in Equality, Law and Social Justice, says that the most obvious change since the 1980s was the move from books to computers: researchers no longer have to sit in libraries but can research from their offices. This has also made it quicker to do research – “although, as it has become faster, something has been lost: time to engage and reflect”.

The second obvious change, linked to that development, is that media-savvy researchers can disseminate their research more easily, she says.

Dwolatzky, who graduated with a PhD in Electrical Engineering at Wits in 1979, says: “The most remarkable change that I see when I compare research at Wits in the 1970s to the way it is undertaken now, is that now there is a large ‘support environment’ that surrounds research. Research in the 2020s at Wits is far more formally managed. Students are under pressure to make progress and work to a timeline and supervisors are under pressure to ensure that they meet these deadlines. Research productivity is measured and discussed.”

Learners visiting Wits Digital Arts | Curiosity 14: #Wits100 ©

Focused research matters more

It is not just the nature of research that has changed. It is also the focus. 

“Research is more socially connected and linked to big social questions than ever before,” says Valodia. “For example, in my areas of speciality, we’ve embarked on big projects on climate change, unemployment and social policy. I think that research is correctly becoming more relevant to the big questions that societies face, and that trend is likely to continue.”

This is also true in other areas, which traditionally have not seen much scope for interdisciplinary work.

Albertyn says that there is far greater diversification in methods and collaboration in law research than before. “It was unusual when I started for people to do interviews or social research and understand how the law worked in action. In those days, legal research mainly focused on legislation and cases. Today, it is more interdisciplinary, working with anthropologists or historians to bring different perspectives. Lawyers are also moving beyond traditional legal methodology and are not just reading texts but also interviewing people on how law works in practice.”

In the Wits School of Arts (WSOA), a postgraduate programme, Drama for Life, combines various arts disciplines and techniques to bring an understanding of audience and imaginative engagement to address social issues, such as the effects of HIV/Aids and Covid-19 on youth and marginalised communities.

Next generation researchers

The changing face of research at Wits has already made an impact on the world, as well as a difference in terms of attracting interest in the University. David Francis, Deputy Director of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) at Wits and one of the “next generation” of academics, says that the Centre has seen more widespread interest in how to address the problems of inequality.

“We have seen enthusiasm from other academics, policymakers and activists for an interdisciplinary approach to understanding inequality. That helps to inform our research agenda and it means that there is an audience who is interested,” says Francis.

The SCIS was set up by Valodia as a multidisciplinary research hub to encourage research and policy changes to help address inequality.

“There is a real enthusiasm for research and a depth of ability among young economists,” says Francis, adding that the SCIS is launching new PhD fellowship and Master’s courses and that these are attracting high-calibre applicants. “This is probably because the issues that the Centre is tackling are seen as highly relevant, so we are attracting engaged scholars.”

Albertyn has also seen a difference in the School of Law.

“In recent years, a career in academic law has become far more acceptable to graduates than it was in the 1990s to early 2000s, when the lure of higher salaries in the commercial world or the status of being a professional held greater appeal.”

As research becomes more complex, mentoring the next generation of researchers becomes increasingly important. However, developing the next generation of academics will not happen automatically, says Osman. It must be done in a targeted way, such as through the Future Professor Programme. This is a flagship programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training to develop academic excellence and leadership in university scholarship and so develop the South African professoriate in future.

“We have programmes to develop early career academics, linking them with mentors, and ensuring that they work in big teams to develop the necessary skills sets,” says Osman.

Dwolatzky predicts that, in future, IT systems will be used increasingly to monitor and streamline the research process. “In terms of the content of the research done, I’m hoping that in the future there will be a much stronger relationship between research and impact. I define this as ‘innovation’.”

Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, concludes: “In terms of the Research and Innovation agenda, it is important that the research is responsive and relevant locally and globally – and that includes local communities –, that research is done at the highest academic standards, that we insist on excellence and that we ensure academics set the agenda without political interference.”

  • Charlotte Mathews is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office. Read more in the 14th issue, themed: #Wits100 where we celebrate a century of research excellence that has shaped today and look forward to how our next-generation researchers will impact the next 100 years.