Source: University World News

The council of the Academy of Science of South Africa has defended the editorial independence of its flagship journal – the South African Journal of Science – and the right of any academic to submit for publication the results of research in the scholarly journal subject to editorial review processes.

The council added its voice to the controversy continuing to rage in social and mainstream media over a commentary article recently published by University of Cape Town (UCT) Professor of Economics Nicoli Nattrass in which she attempts to explore the reasons behind the low numbers of black students enrolling for biological science courses at the university. The council said the appropriate forum for criticism of published research “is a form of academic rebuttal by academic peers in and outside of the pages of the journal”.

The two-page article by Nattrass, published in the South African Journal of Science with the title “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?” offers “tentative” conclusions from an “exploratory survey” of 211 students, 54% of whom were black, conducted by researchers from the UCT Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) where she is a co-director.

Materialist values and attitudes to wildlife

The article suggests that black South African students are less likely to consider studying biological sciences than other students, and that “this stance was linked primarily with career aspirations (supporting conservation but not wanting a career in it) – and these were associated with materialist values and attitudes to local wildlife”.

The paper notes that black students, while not opposed to conservation, are not keen on a career in conservation and that “materialist values” play a role.

“… black South Africans may be interested in careers other than in conservation in part because of their relatively disadvantaged backgrounds which could prime them towards considering primarily the higher-paying occupations (accountancy, law)”, the paper states.

Attitudes to evolution and experience of raising pets are also suggested to affect the likelihood of students considering biological sciences as a career path.

“Agreeing that ‘humans evolved from apes’ was the second biggest predictor of considering studying biological sciences, and the relatively high proportion of black South Africans who disagreed with this probably speaks to failures at school level with regard to the teaching of biological sciences and to the strength of religiosity in South Africa. We also found a strong relationship between the number of different pets owned by students and whether they had considered studying biological sciences. This variable is probably picking up attitudes towards and experience of companion animals as well as socio-economic status (pet ownership is more affordable for middle- and upper-income groups),” the paper said.


Shortly after publication the UCT executive management issued a statement in which it labelled the paper as “offensive to black students”, to black people in general and “any academic who understands that the quality of research is inextricably linked to its ethical grounding”.

Distancing itself from the paper’s contents, the executive said it was concerned about “methodological and conceptual flaws” in the article and that the matter would be further investigated.

The response by the UCT executive followed a statement by the Black Academic Caucus (BAC) at UCT, a collective of black academics committed to transformation in higher education, which said the paper fails in all respects in being scientific.

“A hypothesis pinning low enrolment of students in biological sciences to materialist values of black students, lack of pet ownership, attitudes towards wildlife, influence from Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, makes the commentary a joke,” the BAC said.

The BAC said it was “not surprised when white academics design research framed in a fashion that belittles the aspirations of black people because they are meant to feed a narrative that ‘they are not good enough or they don’t deserve to be here’”.

“Let us not have more of this patronising and dehumanising research. Instead let’s have research that affirms the humanity of all and doesn’t seek to insidiously fault black people for institutionalised structures beyond their control,” the BAC said.

‘Silencing project’

In an opinion piece published in News24 on Tuesday 9 June, Nattrass accused the UCT executive of “rush[ing] to pass judgment on the commentary, condemning it as conceptually, methodologically and ethically flawed, with a thinly-veiled verdict of racism”.

She accused the BAC and their supporters of being “engaged in a silencing project” and said the UCT executive had “chosen to legitimise the BAC-led critique, without providing any reasons for their summary judgement – and without ever consulting me”.

Nattrass indicated she would write another opinion piece in which she would “examine what it will mean to the university if this approach does become hegemonic”.

The BAC subsequently published a further response in which it reiterated its focus on “the bad science, bad ethics, and the harming of black students through the production and propagation of racialised stereotypes of black students”.

Weighing in, spokesperson on higher education, science and technology for the Democratic Alliance Professor Belinda Bozzoli, said in its response to the paper, UCT had abrogated Nattrass’s rights to academic freedom after facing pressure from the BAC.

“Deciding thus on a particular piece of work’s quality is not the job of university management. And when a managerial body yields to the demands of a political interest group on campus this sets a dangerous precedent,” she said.

Nattrass is a highly-recognised and cited scholar and was an outspoken advocate of public access to science-based HIV treatment during the period of AIDS denialism in South Africa.

Some of her more original research projects include a study into which people in Khayelitsha are likely to be clients of sangomas or traditional healers, and was co-author in another study linking cultural beliefs with animal welfare, specifically the humane treatment of pest animals such as rodents.

In an interview with Clement Manyathela on CapeTalk on 8 June, Natttrass conceded that she was not in a position to tell black people who say they perceive “racist undertones” in her work whether or not they should feel offended.

“Sure, I totally get that is how people are feeling and the appropriate place is to have a debate. I would like an argument to be made in the pages of the South African Journal of Science which will allow me to respond and to reflect. I might well say: ‘You know, that’s a good point. We should have asked the question that way’. But right now, nobody has yet given me a serious argument. They have not even contacted me. They just condemned me for a particular reading which, in many respects, is based on misrepresentation.

“For example, people are saying things like, ‘I’m condemning black people for not supporting conservation’, when in fact just about everyone in the sample supported conservation. So it’s just not true. I reject this and I invite my critics to argue with me in a reasoned way and not to censor the work and not to silence it because that’s not how we achieve transformation.”