Manusha Pillai (Social vs natural science – a false dichotomy published in Science Forum 2019)
Forging a natural-social science nexus may be the answer to the disconnection between technological advancement, poverty and inequality.
“Today the mobile phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon.” – Dr Michio Kaku, author and theoretical physicist at the City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Centre.
To most of us the apparent conundrum in contemporary life is obvious. Despite significant advances in some areas, both globally and in South Africa (SA), the quality of our lives, and well-being, 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.
The technology-access disconnect
This puzzle is amplified when we realise that we may never have had such immediate access to superior technology and information. Many of us in SA, despite our economic standing, have access to this technology in the palms of our hands. In the global healthcare domain, cancer is one example where there is a disconnection 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 percent of the world’s new cancer cases [occurring] in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America [which will also record] 70 percent of the world’s cancer deaths.”
Why would this be the case 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 ‘Poverty and inequality in South Africa: Policy considerations in an emerging democracy in 2006, 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 SA’s awareness of how poverty and inequality impact millions of citizens, levels have only increased and today the country has the dubious distinction of being the most unequal society in the world.
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 which impact positively on development and well-being.
Internationally, the Millennium Development Goals were adopted by global leaders in 2000. These 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 (NDP).
Building a natural-social science nexus
The question that must then be asked is: “Why, when we know so much, with so much technology at our disposal, despite some advances, is the sustained improvement of the human condition so 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 lies in greater collaboration between social and natural sciences. Both hold important answers to 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 in his 2001 paper, 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 a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and trans disciplinary collaborative approach is required to tackle some of the resistant and deeply complex challenges facing humanity at large.
Reprioritising social sciences
Despite the acknowledgement of complementarity and the real contribution of 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 L. Cooper, the most decorated American psychologist in England, this is paradoxical since the best “STEM 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.
Interestingly, despite our many challenges and weak economic growth, SA is on the right track in respect of investment in research in the social sciences and the Humanities. The 2014/15 National Survey of Research and Experimental Development, (R&D Survey), demonstrates that the social sciences continue to attract a growing share of gross expenditure on research and development (GERD), with 17.0 percent of expenditure recorded in this research field, albeit a slight decrease of 0.5 percent over the period. The conundrum is exacerbated when we realise that SA is undeniably focused on increasing investment in STEM 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 which threaten all our advances over 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, amongst 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 and when required to develop solutions which ultimately improve the human condition. Lord Stern of Brentford, President of the British Academy, writing in Prospering Wisely, stresses that “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.”
Recognising the crucial role of the social sciences in improving life for South African (and global) citizens, the Human Sciences Research Council honoured a social scientist of great standing and repute in its second Annual Medal in Social Sciences and Humanities on 31 August 2017.
*Manusha Pillai is Director: Stakeholder Relations and Communications at the Human Sciences Research Council
Social vs natural science