South African academic institutions should hone their research capabilities and develop home-grown solutions to challenges facing the country and the world.
These were the words of the out-going Wits vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, after the university was ranked first in Africa in the 2020 Academic Ranking of World University (ARWU). The ranking placed the university in the 200-300 band out of about 25 000 universities in the world.
It also means Wits has satisfied six key indicators and requirements, including among others: the number of alumni and the staff winning the Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, the number of articles published in the highly regarded journals such as Nature and Science, the number of Highly Cited Researchers and articles indexed in the Science Citation Index.
Habib is credited for doubling Wits’ research output since he took over as the vice-chancellor. Speaking during the 702 interview after the announcement, Habib underlined the significance of research saying research intensive universities should receive more funding to continue to produce world-class research.
“It is absolutely important that African universities produce their own research; that they produce their own technologies and they tell their own stories. In a moment like Covid-19 pandemic this is even more important,” said Habib.
He said what is also critical about this particular ranking is that it focuses very heavily on the research dimension. He said at least 80% of research that universities undertake should have an applied component and address matters that directly affect humans. We must not, Habib said, see the development of research as an esoteric and ‘nice-to-have’ pursuit, adding that research should be used to address the challenges of our time.
“At this very moment, Wits is busy with Covid-19 vaccine trials across the country. This is going to have dramatic impact on whether we can bring this virus under control,” said Habib. Wits has deployed three of its senior academics who are part of the Presidential Economic Advisory Council advising government on what policies we should be following to help the country achieve economic growth and inclusion, said Habib.
“We also have colleagues in the Data Analytics Centre working with the department of health looking at projections on how this virus is evolving and how government can effectively deal with it,” added Habib.
He also observed that “too much public money is moving away from research institutions”. He said this seems to be fuelled by the kind of populist rhetoric and logic that suggests that we must all be equal and the same. He said while all institutions should be transformed, we must recognise that some of these institutions will focus on teaching, others will be research institutions and others will focus on producing post-graduate. And that is why it is important that we don’t develop a populist approach to our research institutions, Habib said.
“If we continue to allow public money to move away from research institutions we will destroy the research capabilities of this country. And we will therefore destroy the country’s ability to respond to the challenges of our time. We must take proactive measure to support our research institutions like Wits and universities of Cape Town, Pretoria and Stellenbosch”, he advised.
He also highlighted the importance of ethics to ensure the quality of research output is beyond reproach. Early this year, a UCT based professor Nicoli Natrass, was chastised for publishing a study titled: “Why are black people South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?”
The study was widely condemned with UCT distancing itself from it saying it has ‘methodological and conceptual flaws that raise questions about the standard and ethics of research at the institution. Habib cautioned that to avoid similar mistakes, institutions should continuously review research policies and ethics and ensure peer review is put in place. “Peer review mechanism is not perfect but it provides check and balances”, said Habib, adding this also safeguards the standards and integrity of the research projects.
He said before the findings of any study could be published in the international journals they have to undergo a rigorous peer-review scrutiny. In addition, they should be adjudicated in a fair and balanced way by both local and global scholars.