Change the world



The Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University is at a crossroads. Having been part of a relatively young merged university, less than 15 years old, we are in the process of reshaping our identity and assessing our role as the largest service faculty within Nelson Mandela University.

On 20 July 2017 the institution became Nelson Mandela University, carrying the honour of being the only university in the world to officially carry the global icon’s name.

It is a fitting time to reflect on our journey and pause for a moment to consider where we are and where we want to go. In doing so, the Faculty of Science needs to heed the call of President Cyril Ramaphosa in reshaping our future to truly become a 21st century African Faculty of Science.

At Nelson Mandela University’s naming ceremony, President Ramaphosa said:

A new university is born today. At its birth … it is challenged to redefine higher education in our country … From now on, the many thousands of students passing through these gates will have the name ‘Nelson Mandela’ in their résumés. Will they too go on to become unifiers, innovators, internationalists? Will they too dream of a new society founded on equality and the pursuit of human happiness? And will they have the skills, the knowledge, the consciousness to strive together to build such a society? A new university is born today.

Our new university is being taken into the future by three distinguished leaders: the Chancellor, Dr Geraldine FraserMoleketi; the Chair of Council, Ms Nozipho January-Bardill; and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa. The Faculty of Science is excited to work with these leaders in pursuit of our university’s central tenet, as explored in the Vice-Chancellor’s inaugural address on 17 April 2018: Taking Nelson Mandela University Boldly Into The Future in Service to Society. The title and the VC’s speech resonate well with the goals of the Faculty of Science in re-shaping its future to become a 21st Century African Faculty of Science.

Of particular interest in the inaugural address is:

  1. The notion of transformational and transformative leadership; and
  2. 2. The identity of the university experienced through the faculties, with growing connections between the natural sciences, the humanities and the social sciences through transdisciplinary research and partnerships in solving local and global challenges.

Standing at the crossroads and looking at the clock, I realise that we are entering the third decade of the 21st century. Globally, social and political systems are acceding to the notion of a post-truth world. Right here at this crossroads, in this precarious political and social context we face both the opportunities and the challenges of a range of powerful, emerging technologies – from artificial intelligence, to biotechnologies, from advanced materials to quantum computing – that will drive radical shifts in the way we live in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

While standing at this crossroads for our world, university and faculty, I am reminded of the most extraordinary moment in the history of science – the picture of gravitation, space-time and matter embodied in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. It fundamentally changed how we understand space and time, and energy and mass.  From this theory a fundamental link between space and time emerged, unified into space-time, and the relationship between mass and energy emerged as mass-energy conservation. To achieve this, Einstein had to think radically by stepping away from the tradition of thinking about space and time separately; instead, he unified them, similarly energy and mass.

It took Einstein nearly eight years to find the final and correct form of the General Relativity (GR) theory which connects matter (massenergy) and space-time. It takes us back 100 years to 29 May, 1919 when the first tests for Einstein’s GR were performed during the longest (six minutes long) total solar eclipse of the 20th century from the island of Principe (off the west coast of Africa). When the New York Times published the news of the results confirming the prediction of GR theory on 7 November, 1919, Einstein became a household name overnight. Since that most important eclipse off our continent, Einstein’s GR has been tested in many other ways, each time proving that his view of the warping of space and time is very much the universe we live in.

The latest test was the detection of gravitational waves (predicted by Einstein’s GR theory in 1916) that have been travelling across the universe for 130 million years, arriving on Earth on 17 August, 2017. I am proud that South Africa and Africa participated in the detection and observation of these gravitational waves through MeerKAT and SALT. This detection gave birth to a new scientific research field known as Multi-messenger Astronomy/ Astrophysics.

At the time of writing of this publication, a historical breakthrough happened – the first ever image of a black hole was released by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration on Wednesday 10 April, 2019. The existence of black holes was predicted by Einstein more than 100 years ago, and this is a confirmation of the test of Einstein’s theory once again.

Standing at these crossroads means we bear a huge responsibility to shape the future of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University and we are compelled to think out of the box as Einstein did if we want to better understand our world and the cosmos. I would like to refer my colleagues to the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by American physicist, historian and science philosopher, Thomas S. Kuhn. He explains that the history of science teaches us that major scientific breakthroughs only happen because of radical thinking away from the norm or traditional scientific thinking.

Kuhn challenged longstanding linear notions of scientific progress as he argued that transformative ideas do not arise from the day-today gradual processes of experimentation and data accumulation, but rather through the revolutions in science – those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas outside of normal science.

These examples, albeit from physics, are instructive in our infotech and biotech age where the phrase paradigm shift, popularised by Kuhn, gave it the meaning it has today. I am using the analogy of scientific revolutions because most scientists are familiar with and aware of them. As the Faculty of Science we will need to think radically away from the day-to-day thinking in order to achieve our vision, mission, values, graduate attributes and strategic priorities and objectives.

This requires moving out of our comfort zone. It means phrases like ‘this is how it has always been done’ will have to give room for new, diverse and inclusive ideas.

It means that systems and processes that stand in our way will have to be dismantled, and just like in Einstein’s theory, where the concept of time and space needed to be unified, it might be necessary to dismantle the silos in the faculty and emerge with unified entities that will be fit for purpose and for our identity.

A major lesson we have learnt from Einstein’s theory is that it has stood the test of time; therefore our strategy will need to stand the test of time for the next ten years or so, and just as we test hypotheses in science, our strategy will need to be tested against fit-for-purpose monitoring and evaluation standards. As the title of the book by venture capitalist John Doerr states: Measure What Matters. The question then is what matters for us?

The analogy of the Einstein scenario necessitates that all our students should have a knowledge of the history and philosophy of science, to explore What is Science? and How is Science Done? (the Scientific Method). Once the history and philosophy of science is included in our curriculum, we will be able to articulately address the question of diverse knowledges, new knowledges and the relevance of the curriculum.

While we are at the crossroads there is an expectation by the university and society at large, local and global, that the Faculty of Science should play a leading role in navigating the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Thus, as we shape the future of the faculty, this future will also be shaped by our understanding and participation in shaping the future of the 4IR.

The convergence of data with the advent of computational storage and cognitive power will transform industry and society at every level, thereby creating opportunities that were once unimaginable – from education and health to agriculture, manufacturing and services.

The faculty should lead in the approach to and preparedness for the convergence of several important technology shifts, such as mixed reality, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

The Faculty of Science should rise to the importance of the 4IR and shape it for the benefit of all, guided by our vision of becoming a 21st century African Faculty of Science. This will require new ways of thinking and a broad understanding of different technologies that will impact individuals, communities, our institution and the society at large. The 4IR will indeed be a new chapter in human development, on a par with the First, Second and Third Industrial Revolutions.

If we miss this window of opportunity to shape the future of science, technology and innovation, and in ways that promote the common good, enhance human dignity and protect the environment, the chances are that the challenges we face today of inequality, poverty, unemployment and environmental degradation, will only become worse and compromise the wellbeing of all.

The good news is that the evolution of the faculty is entirely within our power. Everybody can and should have a say about how we shape the future of our faculty, and we are in the fortunate position of having a very supportive top leadership of the institution. In shaping the future of our faculty, our mission, vision, values, graduate attributes, strategic priorities and objectives should reflect the university’s strategic direction, the National Development Plan (NDP), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and be aligned with Agenda 2063 and the White paper on Science Technology and Innovation (STI).

By Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Professor Azwinndini Muronga

The full Faculty of Science publication can be downloaded from this page.

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Ms Zandile Mbabela
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