Preparing for 4IR – We ignore the humanities at our peril

Scholars and experts have called for a new approach to research across the African research landscape that will ensure that humanities and social sciences (HSS) disciplines are integrated into all scientific research.

Such an interdisciplinary approach to scientific research in universities and research institutions not only delivers more conclusive outcomes, but also provides more holistic solutions to problems.

Speakers at the recent African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Second Biennial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, held from 18-20 November, observed that science alone will not adequately prepare Africa to take part in the next major phase of human development, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The theme of the conference was “Africa and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Defining a role for research universities”.

Inter-disciplinary partnerships

Speakers, among them prominent scholars, academicians and researchers, called for an “interdisciplinary partnership” in research, observing that such an approach produced more insightful results at the end of a project and raised the chances of securing successful research funding.

The incorporation of HSS in all university curricula also produced more rounded graduates, it was claimed.

“A cross-disciplinary approach to research often produced human-focused solutions to problems” rather than a scientific understanding of a problem, said Andrew Thompson, executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, United Kingdom.

The most powerful applications for research funding are always those that have an element of HSS in them and they always stand a higher chance of winning funding, said the scholar who is also professor of global imperial history at the University of Oxford.

“Problems confronting the world today including those that universities are trying to study … call for cross-disciplinary dialogue if they are to be solved,” said Thompson.

He said in order for academia to understand and play a role in the 4IR, it will need the input of HSS practitioners including historians and other scholars with a deeper understanding of the ethical and cultural dimensions of the revolution.

Implications of leap frogging

“They will be needed to provide answers to questions [regarding the implications of] skipping whole stages of development brought about by mobile phones for example,” he said.

World leaders and politicians in general, he said, were not prepared for the 4IR and will need social scientists who understand “where research ends and politics begin”.

Tade Akin Aina, executive director of the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), a pan-African think tank based in Nairobi, said African academics should consciously integrate HSS in their research and go even further to include local knowledge for more impactful results.

He said social scientists including sociologists, anthropologists, writers and artists could be relied upon to provide narratives beyond the scientific dimensions of 4IR.

In settings where it was thought that only scientific knowledge was required, social scientists were needed, he said, citing the example of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where social scientists were called upon to analyse the social conditions and cultural practices that were impacting the spread of the disease.

Foundational programmes

According to George Odera Outa of University of Nairobi’s Institute for Climate Change, the expertise generated from study in STEM fields alone was unlikely to advance Africa in respect of the 4IR. African universities needed to invest in a strong “foundational” humanities and social sciences programme and allow students an “unencumbered” freedom of choice, he said.

“The early and copious exposure to the humanities play a major … role in nurturing lifelong abilities, irrespective of career choices picked thereafter,” said Outa.

He said there was evidence emerging from institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which suggested that technology cannot be taught in the absence of the humanities.

Students exposed to both showed higher ability to handle multi-dimensional concepts and were in practice multiple intelligence students, he said.

“Anecdotal evidence in Kenya for example suggests that we have graduates who cannot write in proper English, partly due to separation of English grammar from literature at high school level,” said the literary and legal scholar.

There was therefore a strong case for collaborative dialogue, partnerships and networking between the humanities and STEM in order to address such gaps and “secure a wholesome society”.

Throughout history the big influence of humanities in scientific discoveries was well documented, he said, noting that scientific research without the benefit of HSS tended to produce “spineless” science.

Agreeing with Thompson’s earlier comments, Ashiwel Undieh of City College of New York in the United States, said across the world researchers were now appreciating that a blend of scientific and HSS research produced more holistic solutions to problems under investigation and received more attention from funders.