African Physics Newsletter

Inventiveness Re-Invented

The training of postgraduate students should combine basic sciences and the ability to make a social impact.

The intellectual challenge of open-ended inquiry in science is enormous: for many physicists, the need to find the basic principles that govern the universe drives the imagination, and the grind of hard work, late into the night.

Can we afford to do this when we live with the challenges of poverty, joblessness, and danger to our people?

Applied research for fast answers

Directed, applied industrial research offers absorbing and engaging challenges and practical rewards. Here, we are faced with the need for answers. Here, we are driven to find a way of accomplishing something fast, for implementation, with the challenges of bringing a product to market – and therefore, of understanding the market before we begin.

But don’t we run the risk of losing the brightest and best students to other countries if we don’t unleash their capabilities right here in Africa, during their time of fastest learning and development?

Open-ended inquiry for fresh ideas

Nithaya Chetty, from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, addresses this dilemma in his recent article “Re-inventing inventiveness in science”, asking “Given the enormous expense involved in supporting research at universities and our national facilities, especially in a developing country like South Africa, it seems fair to ask: ‘Why should society, more specifically taxpayers, support open-ended scientific research?’

Much of science is incremental, especially in a world driven by delivery on research grants. Chetty argues that of course we should do applied and industrial research, but not to the exclusion of open-ended inquiry, for the danger is that “we would run short of truly fresh scientific ideas to apply to our societal problems. We would destroy the source of high-quality young graduates with the capability and versatility to move towards directed, applied industrial research and thus we would destroy the entire scientific enterprise.”

The training of post-graduate students

There is no doubt that the post-graduate phase of the scientist’s life-cycle is the one where independent critical thinking is nurtured, and intellectual versatility blossoms, not least because individuals enter this phase on the cusp of adulthood. This vital period is one in which transferable skills are learned, natural aptitudes blossom, and the scientist emerges looking for ways to transfer this wisdom to challenging employment environments.

Thus, in Chetty’s words, “Training postgraduate students in an environment of open-ended inquiry is vital for their personal development. … Thus, the question arises about how we can be more creative in postgraduate student training so that graduates can impact more positively on society without damaging the very ethos needed to sustain science into the future.”

Lessons from the COVID crisis

The article was published in March 2020, just as South Africa went into lockdown. These ideas were tested in fire from that month onwards. Not only did the SARS-CoV-2 virus sweep across the world, but scientific results became available immediately online, in accordance with the best principles of Open Access.

Scientists of all disciplines answered the call to help. In the front ranks were the postgrad students, including theoretical physicists and radio astronomers, making ventilator equipment and negotiating with sponsors and distributors, doing the maths of pooled testing and becoming familiar with clinical trials, and adapting themselves to understand both epidemiology and communication with doctors. The versatility of these postgrads is a tribute to their great capabilities and their willingness to make impact not only in academia but in saving lives.

Chetty sees quality postgraduate student training as a vital cog for societal development, enabling successful careers and meaningful contributions to society.

Review by Igle Gledhill, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

This article has first been published by the African Physics Newsletter - © American Physical Society 2020

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