Over the last two centuries, scientific advances, including the development of antibiotics, vaccines and antiretroviral medication, have significantly improved life expectancy. And the expansion of agriculture and food production has enabled us to produce enough food for all.
Yet, millions of people still go hungry and die from preventable and treatable diseases. This is because scientific knowledge is never enough to reduce preventable illness and death. The multiple factors that influence people’s health and their access to modern medicine and health services have been studied by social scientists for many years, including those at the HSRC.
In this edition of the HSRC Review, we feature articles on various health-related challenges and the need for new and unique approaches to tackle them in the South African context. We also include a selection of articles that focus on ‘intellectual liberation’, emphasising the need for a more inclusive way of producing and consuming knowledge at academic institutions.
Understanding Rwanda’s recovery
Also touching on health outcomes, Prof Ivan Turok writes about Rwanda’s remarkable economic recovery since nearly a million people were killed in the 1994 genocide. Life expectancy there has risen, child mortality has dropped and the number of underweight children has been halved. On a recent study visit to the country, Turok learned more about local drivers of development in the country, including community participation in regular civic campaigns and a managed approach to urbanisation.
Malnutrition: it is about quality food
According to the World Food Programme, the world is producing enough food for everyone, but one out of nine people still goes to bed on an empty stomach and many suffer from some degree of malnutrition. Also in South Africa, many go hungry, yet obesity levels are soaring, fuelling lifestyle diseases such as diabetes.
Among the articles in this edition of the HSRC Review, Dr Peter Jacobs emphasises the need to measure healthy eating in South Africa and people’s awareness of the nutritional content of foods. Catherine Ndinda and Dr Sikhulumile Sinyolo write about the importance of agro-food policies for the prevention of non-communicable diseases, which influence the type of foods produced and their availability in the local market.
Knowledge: what are we missing?
A few years ago, at the height of earlier debates around the decolonisation of education, a student called for the “scrapping of science”, during discussions hosted at the University of Cape Town. She was mocked relentlessly on social media. It is debatable whether the public discourse on decolonisation has matured since then, but academics have been questioning the way in which we produce and consume knowledge for many years. At the 2018 Science Forum South Africa, HSRC researchers and other academics spoke about the requirements for ‘intellectual liberation’.
They warned against a blind embrace of technology, which creates a world of instant gratification with little space for reflection, different opinions, humour or compassion. The presenters emphasised the role of the public intellectuals who engage with society about its problems in addition to their academic pursuits, and of artists and African thinkers who have not been afraid to speak truth to those in power.
One presenter spoke about the need for inclusive public spaces that support knowledge production. Another warned that being inclusive should not give a platform to anti-science religious zealots, such as some right-wing religious nationalists in India.
An inclusive approach to research, where respecting the dignity of the most vulnerable people in society, is crucial. We include in this edition an article on the importance of research ethics. This is particularly important in South Africa with its history of human rights abuses and disregard for local truths. The definition of what ethical research entails is not static and will probably always have to be questioned and refined.
Please feel free to share your thoughts with us, using the contact email addresses provided below each article.