‘Growing anti-intellectual sentiment could dilute universities’ impact’ – Panel discussion at UP Future Africa

Posted on May 26, 2023

A panel discussion on ‘Networking the Networks’ held at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Future Africa Institute observed that societal distrust of intellectualism and experts is a growing trend that could dilute universities’ ability to impact the “grand challenges” of the times.

The discussion was hosted by the National Research Foundation on 24 May during Africa Week 2023 and moderated by Professor Cheryl de la Rey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP.

Some of the other views heard included that universities should be bridge-builders, which can be challenging in the current global environment of anti-intellectualism; and that if researchers are to succeed in reaching and influencing policymakers, they must grapple in earnest with the “use value” of their research and how they package it.

The panellists suggested ways to bridge the gaps and entrench scientifically researched evidence into policymakers’ deliberations and decisions.

Policymakers do not speak ‘scientist’

“The format of the evidence is important. Policymakers don’t speak ‘scientist’. Researchers need to package the evidence to make it palatable to policymakers,” said Mr Francis Hale, Director of Policy Advocacy and Communications at the Food Agriculture Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN).

He said policymakers want to grasp the essence of the evidence in the first 20 minutes of being exposed to it, do not need to know the research methodology used, and do not want researchers to prescribe to them. Rather, researchers should succinctly sum up the policy options and let the policymakers select the options that would work for them.

“The research agenda must integrate with the community,” Hale said, using the example of the “dismal” performance of African agricultural policymaking. “There are a lot of gaps, from the environment and water to nutrition and food security. The research agenda must be set up to work on evidence that is needed.”

Building bridges in a climate of scepticism

Despite widespread distrust of experts and intellectualism, society has high expectations of universities, said Professor Ahmed Bawa, former CEO of Universities South Africa and member of the International Science Council Open Science Working Group, South Africa.

“Universities are powerful bridges,” he said, adding that higher education institutions and networks are expected to be involved in addressing humanity’s grand challenges, which are gathering pace and causing devastating shifts in climate, geopolitics, food security, and population patterns – all of which have enormous implications for universities.

“By 2050, Africa will have 25% of the world’s population, while populations in Japan and parts of Europe are experiencing devastating decline,” he said. “Japan has 750 universities, but schools are empty and being shut down and mothballed. In sub-Saharan Africa, there is an eight percent participation rate in higher education, and it is not possible in the short term to massively increase higher education provisioning.”

As social institutions, universities could not disengage from the world’s many grand challenges and neither could they go it alone or in silo networks, Prof Bawa said. “We need international networks that are formulated around open science principles and that articulate themselves horizontally and vertically. University networks must also involve students and engage communities in the same way we do with industry.”

What industry wants from partnerships

An industry view on partnerships with universities, science councils, and governments was also represented.

“There is a big need for deeper collaboration to grow and innovate, because we are dealing with global challenges. You can’t do it alone,” said Dr Thembakazi Mali, Senior Vice-President of Sasol South Africa.

She said Sasol works with consortia of different institutions, an example being its South African-German partnership to produce sustainable aviation fuel. Funded by the German government, this project is a “vast network” that includes South African industry partners, the University of Cape Town, two German institutions, and a Dutch company.

Asked what factors ensure a university-industry partnership runs smoothly, Dr Mali said Sasol’s main criteria are to seek to direct the agenda, focus on research that is applicable to it, and limit the scope of the work for focus and impact.

Shifting the hierarchies of power

In response to a question from the floor on power asymmetries at universities, which see senior academics ostensibly hold “hierarchies of power”, Prof De la Rey said many of the most disruptive technologies of the 21st century had been invented by people under the age of 23.

“Many had enrolled at universities and left our hallowed halls because there were too many restrictions.” She noted a trend in universities in some countries towards flatter structures, and a move away from using titles.

She also pointed out the parallels between the organisational culture at universities and the open science movement – ‘Open Africa, Open Science’ being the theme of UP’s Africa Week 2023. She said rethinking organisational culture begs the question, “What does open science mean within institutions, and how does it shift the hierarchies?”

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