University of Cape Town. Picture: MOEKETSI MOTICOE
University of Cape Town. Picture: MOEKETSI MOTICOE

On May 27, a commentary by Nicoli Nattrass appeared in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS), reporting the results of a questionnaire-based investigation among students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), titled “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?”            ’

Nattrass is probably the country’s leading academic economist. Four years ago she was recruited to co-direct a new multidisciplinary venture researching human-animal conflict, the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), in the department of biological sciences at UCT, while retaining her post in economics.

Last year, with the institute’s first three-year review looming, she decided to investigate why it was struggling to recruit black postgraduate students at UCT. She applied for, and was duly granted, ethics clearance by the university to undertake a survey.

Universities require studies which involve human subjects — either in a clinical or nonclinical context — as well as vertebrate animals, to be screened by ethics committees before they are conducted. The university, in granting ethical clearance, accords the study legitimacy, at least in terms of its execution.

When Nattrass presented her results to the institute’s review panel in December, one of the external panel members suggested that she publish the results. A manuscript was duly submitted to, and accepted by, the SAJS as a commentary, rather than as a peer-reviewed article.

On publication, UCT’s Black Academic Caucus wrote to the university’s executive demanding its retraction. An (unidentified) member of the UCT executive approached the editor-in-chief of the journal and asked her to do so. Correctly, this request was declined, as retraction is the prerogative of the author, unless the results have been shown to have been falsified.

One would have thought that at this juncture the executive would have investigated, and ascertained, that the university had granted ethics clearance. One would also have imagined that the deputy vice-chancellor: research, Susan Harrison, would have recalled that she had chaired the panel at which it was suggested that the study be published. And that in the context of the university having effectively sanctioned the study, its best strategy might have been to say nothing more about it.

But no, instead it released a statement, tweeted to over 200,000 followers, expressing its concern “that the paper has methodological and conceptual flaws that raise questions about the standard and ethics of research at UCT”. Having passed judgment, it then concludes that the university is investigating the matter further.

This statement is remarkable in that executive member Harrison had neither flagged these flaws when she chaired the panel to which the results were presented, nor dissented from the suggestion that the study be published. Coincidentally, she is also responsible for overseeing ethics clearance at UCT. A subsequent critique from the Black Academic Caucus includes a thoughtful reformulation of Nattrass’s survey questions, yet their views do not appear to have been represented on the university’s ethics committees.

This was followed by slightly less inane but similarly condemnatory statements by both the dean of science, Maano Ramutsindela, and the head of the department of biological sciences, Muthama Muasya. Incidentally, both men served ex officio on the review panel and were thus invited to the same meeting, but neither was present, though the latter was represented by an alternate.

In universities — which are collegial institutions — executives, deans and departmental heads can make statements like these, but they are expected to consult widely before doing so. They are also answerable to the university senate, faculty and department, respectively: any of these bodies could request retraction of a statement which it deemed inappropriate or unfair.

But none appears to have done so. While it can be argued that virtual meetings are not conducive to sorting such matters out, none of these three statements acknowledged the obvious responsibility that the university bears in the publication of this study. All that it has done is to attempt to apportion blame, to the author alone, for its putative faults.

It is not my intention here to discuss the study itself. Many others have debated it in the media; a special issue of the SAJS will be published on Friday to publish correspondence related to it. Nor is it my intention to fire a smug salvo at a rival institution. But as an alumnus of the zoology department (forerunner to the department of biological sciences) and the faculty in which it is located, I feel a grave disquiet at their lack of collegiality.

For the silence from Nattrass’s own colleagues at UCT is deafening. Are they really convinced that she acted in bad faith, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or are they petrified of retribution?

• Michael Cherry is a professor of zoology at Stellenbosch University and a former editor-in-chief of the SAJS. He writes in his personal capacity

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