‘Science must serve society’

02 October 2019 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 10 min.
Six months into his deanship in the Faculty of Science, Prof Maano Ramutsindela says “we do some fine science” at UCT.
Six months into his deanship in the Faculty of Science, Prof Maano Ramutsindela says “we do some fine science” at UCT.

The rise of artificial intelligence and the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have profound effects on societies of the future. But society must shape science, corralling the social sciences and engineering, if we are to move humanity forward, said Professor Maano Ramutsindela.

He was speaking in an interview with UCT News to mark six months as Dean of Science at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Ramutsindela said that while artificial intelligence has the potential to recreate the world, society must be aware of the enormous social and cultural complexities attached to scientific advancement.

“Think of the mines. We should be using technology to make mines more productive and to prevent people dying in the mines, surveying oxygen levels and potential areas of rockfalls, not to replace labour.”

He added: “We should take advantage of this revolution to meet our needs, rather than simply to adjust to what the revolution requires us to do. If we can shape it to serve our needs it will be the faculty’s contribution to our country.”

As dean, he heads a faculty of 12 diverse departments and multiple research units which is internationally renowned for excellent teaching and research. It has yielded two Nobel laureates in Allan MacLeod Cormack (medicine 1979) and Aaron Klug (chemistry 1982). Over one-third of UCT’s annual PhDs graduate from the faculty.

Ramutsindela’s five-year term as dean started in the International Year of the Periodic Table, which marked the 150th anniversary of Dmitry Mendeleev’s discovery. In just the past month three new scientific discoveries have further shifted our understanding of the world and universe.

New understanding of the world and universe

From the ground in Ethiopia came the discovery of a 3.8-million-year-old, almost complete fossil cranium, Australopithecus anamensis. It’s thought to be the possible ancestor of Lucy, the semi-complete Australopithecus afarensis skeleton discovered in that country in 1974, and supports the idea that early hominin evolution was not linear. 

From the skies, researchers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Lab at Caltech and Virgo, Italy, say gravitational waves may have revealed “solid” evidence of the first black hole caught swallowing a neutron star, a collision some 900 million light-years away.

And from the air in California’s Mojave Desert, scientists harvested water from the desert atmosphere using a solar-powered device, which could provide water in drought-stressed regions like South Africa.

These are flourishing areas of research in the science faculty, in our fossil-rich, water-scarce region; which has become a growing hub for astronomers.

It’s a good time to be a scientist, Ramutsindela said, citing the faculty’s recent Open Day. Wearing his new “Dean” hat, he met prospective students and visited the displays and demos.

“I thought, we do some fine science at this university. It’s a very productive faculty and our people do world-class science.”

 

“You’re building from a very strong foundation of scholarship.”

In the first few weeks in office he spent time in the departments to understand the kinds of science people are doing.

“And you just get blown away.”

Already there’s a groundswell of top young researchers coming through the ranks. Most of the scholars on the Vice-Chancellor’s Future Leaders programme are in the Science faculty.

Dedication, discovery, decisions, discipline

Ramutsindela took on the deanship while still on sabbatical as a professor in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science. But he managed to fulfil important commitments: co-developing the Global Africa Group as a success story within the Worldwide Universities Network, a global alliance of 23 research-intensive universities. He also co-edited a book on Africa and the Sustainable Development Goals, just published.

But no one hits the ground running, he said. Settling into the deanship has taken dedication, discovery, canny decision-making, and discipline.

Dedication in terms of the workload and to the students; discipline to adapt to a different way of being as dean, as well as maintaining a disciplined world-view and the things that carry the values that define who is he and how he relates to people; and discovery as he sits on myriad committees.

His approach to managing the faculty centres on a collective decision-making approach, in line with his view of collective leadership. He doesn’t recommend a king-of-the-castle approach (“What happens when the king leaves?”).

Collective leadership is inclusive at its heart. There’s so much wisdom in this faculty and not to tap into these ideas is not good for leadership.”

Practically, this will mean opening opportunities for as many people as possible to contribute to running the faculty and allowing people to “grow into what they could become”.

 

“When people are nominated, they feel they are representing the community out there...”

He’s aware that he has five years to build and strengthen the faculty’s leadership. To start, Ramutsindela opened the nomination process for his team of deputy deans to all academic staff. Deputy deans have been appointed for three years to promote stability.

“When people are nominated, they feel they are representing the community out there; people want them; it’s not the dean’s person.”

Strengthening faculty leadership

The result is the appointments of Associate Professor Adam West (biological sciences) for undergraduate matters and Associate Professor Jeff Murugan (mathematics and applied mathematics) for postgraduate studies and research. But Ramutsindela went further, creating a third deputy dean position for transformation, a first for the faculty. Professor Rebecca Ackermann (archaeology) has filled these new shoes.

“It’s how we think about transformation; it should be at the centre of the deanery and the faculty. It’s not just the responsibility of the Transformation Committee.”

He’s also hoping that he will know well in advance of the end of their terms who is likely to succeed them so that people can be trained beforehand, stabilising the faculty leadership.

Ackermann’s appointment is a kairotic moment in a faculty Ramutsindela said is described as the least transformed of UCT’s six academic faculties.

“When we think about transformation it’s often limited to equity appointments. Transformation, we know now, is much broader than appointing staff. We also need clear policy guidelines on how we should do things.”

 

“Transformation, we know now, is much broader than appointing staff.”

This renewal must include transforming the teaching space. The dean plans to tackle this by training postgraduate students both as researchers and in teaching, if they’re keen.

“We’re very good at producing graduate students who can publish. But when we want to appoint people, we say they can’t teach, or they don’t have experience. But we’ve never given them that opportunity.

“So, this is one of the facets of my vision: to find a way to get our postgrads to participate in teaching activities. One way is to encourage departments to use postgraduate students as replacement teachers.”

The faculty’s Postgraduate Students Committee is already excited about the possibilities.

“They’re asking, ‘When are we going to start?’. And if we’re looking to appoint black South Africans, we won’t find them if we don’t train them, and if we just train them and don’t use them, they will feel outside the system.”

Retaining young talent

He’s buoyed by the Vice-Chancellor’s initiatives to identify and retain young talent, especially women. Women are rare in some departments and this is another key transformation issue.

“The plan is to prioritise the appointment of women scientists, to develop support structures to ensure they succeed in their scholarships, to open opportunities for them to contribute to faculty-wide initiatives, and to take leadership roles,” said Ramutsindela.

The strength of the faculty is that it runs very well, he said. Their most recent innovation was the online registration of postgraduate students, piloted at the beginning of the year.

There are still improvements to be made but he believes the system could be implemented across the university. They also recently launched Monday.com, a computerised tracking tool for requests that are made within the faculty.

“If a staff member makes a request to the faculty, we should be able to see where it is. If it works well the university might want to adopt it. We will know who’s sleeping on the bus!”

As for being Africa’s leading university, Ramutsindela said the faculty’s Department of Computer Science has won the bid to host the first artificial intelligence conference in Africa in 2023. UCT will host this event in a consortium with other institutions in the country.


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