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

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.”