Ismail Lagardien Columnist & essayist
EFF leader Julius Malema responds to President Cyril Ramaphosa's state of the nation address in Parliament, Cape Town, in this February 18 2020 file photo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER
EFF leader Julius Malema responds to President Cyril Ramaphosa's state of the nation address in Parliament, Cape Town, in this February 18 2020 file photo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

There has been a lot of scientific activity over the past several weeks and months. The highlight has been Nasa’s launch and landing of Perseverance on Mars. Somewhat under the radar, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency reported (some time in December) that its Hayabusa2 spacecraft had found more than the anticipated amount of soil and gases inside a small capsule from a distant asteroid, brought it back to Earth and thereby marked a milestone in planetary research.

Further below the radar, the Indian Space Research Organisation has so far carried out about 111 spacecraft missions and 79 launch missions. Undergirding some of these momentous applications of science are academic research outputs which, when seen together, have strong correlations with economic expansion.

Whenever I read about these things I recall the student who called for “the decolonisation of science”, as part of the terribly fractious nature of SA politics. In the context under discussion, here this fractiousness is often led not by education or scientific inquiry, but by the politics of revenge, recrimination and erasure, racial profiling, pivoting and crude rhetoric.

The result of all this is, as Carter Woodson wrote several years ago, a triumph of miseducation. As such, the words of politicians carry more intellectual weight and credibility than any scientific treatise from Albert Einstein, the work of Neil deGrasse Tyson, or the achievements of the late Edward Bouchet, the first African-American to complete a PhD in physics at Yale University, in 1876. Julius Malema or Ace Magashule, two among a legion of apparent bearers of knowledge, carry greater weight than the late mathematician Katherine Johnson and her contributions to US space technology.

As Woodson explained: “If you can control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do.” What I am alluding to here is that the words of Malema, Magashule or any of the radical economic transformation crowd help young people gain fame and notoriety, access and opportunities, without making a shred of  contribution to knowledge production in SA. I am discussing science in particular here, without traducing the value and necessity of the humanities.

The problem with the unqualified statement for the decolonisation of science is one of misunderstanding of application; that is where the problem lies. The standout example remains, arguably, the use of the science and technology behind the Manhattan project to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While there are many examples of science being abused for racist reasons (such as the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”), let us stay in Japan and see if we can clear a path for a discussion on the political-economic value of knowledge production in the sciences.

Japanese policymakers are experiencing somewhat of an existential crisis. Having spent most of the past five decades or so pushing the scientific and technological boundaries of innovation and industry, they worry that Japan has a single company, Toyota, in the world’s top 50 by market value.

Thus reported the Financial Times, “once an innovative technology leader, the country is today far from being an instinctive, fearless challenger of boundaries. Three decades ago 32 of the top 50 companies were Japanese. That slide coincides with the steady fall of Japanese universities through the global academic rankings and a worldwide decline in Japanese research paper citations from fourth place to 11th since 2000.

“Over the past two decades Japan’s global share of patent awards has fallen from more than 30% to 10%. Researchers last year found that the total planned $160bn R&D spending of just five US companies (Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet) was bigger than that of the whole of corporate Japan.”

This “existential crisis” of sorts comes in the context of fast-paced scientific achievements in China, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries, all of which are making great strides into the fourth industrial revolution with investments and knowledge production in artificial intelligence, robotics, the use of big data and other technologies.

The key, it seems, is knowledge production that results in something tangible. Performance politics by the EFF and the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association produce nothing. Japan, having acknowledged a correlation between its slide down the scale of investment in R&D and economic expansion, has approved a plan to create a giant endowment fund that will feed research with its annual gains, with initial seed funding of $42bn through university fundraising and additional government debt.

Pessimistic though I may be, I am not given to catastrophism. But we are in serious trouble when SA’s young people rely on the wisdom and vision of leaders such as Malema and Magashule.

• Lagardien, a visiting professor at the Wits University School of Governance, has worked in the office of the chief economist of the World Bank, as well as the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.