Making Science Equitable

Megan Zerez
Jan 25 2018

From further down the hill, the beating stanzas of struggle songs waft through open windows. The conference room is packed, and quiet murmurs fill the air. A phone chimes: there’s a few stragglers waiting at the loading dock who need to be let in—the Molecular Biology building, like many of the others at the University of Cape Town, is barricaded against the very protests we’re here to discuss.

Soon, the latecomers are wading through the sea of scientists—department heads, PhD candidates and undergrads alike—seated crosslegged on the floor. We’re all here to discuss a recent video of a discussion between protesting students and members of the science faculty. It’s part of a conflict that’s been raging South African universities nationwide, for two years now.

At the University of Cape Town, an institution that was once reserved for whites under apartheid, white students still make up the largest group of the student body. In the STEM faculties, that number is even higher. According to a report from the council on higher education, white completion rates are on average 50% higher than African rates and only about 5% of apartheid-category black and coloured[1] youth succeed in any form of higher education.

Many contend that these disparities are baked into the South African educational model: high schools are often still segregated by income and race, and funding tends to follow those trends. Students who attend a rural or township[2] school not only have a lower rate of high school graduation and college readiness, but have no reasonable means of affording even the most modest college program.

That is the guiding principal of the Fees Must Fall movement. In addition to the financial focus, activists argue that much of what is taught in schools and universities is euro-centric, based on colonial era thought, and alienates Black African students who are able to overcome the odds against them.

Back in the conference room, one of my classmates takes a seat atop a sturdy meeting table, and calls the meeting to order. In the video, which had gone viral, a white science professor and a black student activist have gotten into a heated discussion over whether science, could undergo the sort of ‘decolonization’ that was occurring in many of the history and English courses at UCT. The video ends with her cutting off the professor, proclaiming, “Fees must fall and science must fall!”

The video bristles many in the room and for different reasons. The professor in the video is in the room, and many others have worked with him. Before the activist spoke, he had exasperatedly shouted that there was no way to decolonize science—that science was simply data, devoid of culture or bias. To even attempt this would be asinine, he claimed. As much as the people in this room love what they do, they agree with the activist—albeit in different words.

Opinions like the ones voiced by the white professor are the reason why any well-rounded science education should include courses on ethics. Science may take place in sterile conditions, but it does not exist in a vacuum.

The backdrop of this meeting is particularly unstable: protestors had vandalized the law college the week before. It’s also the anniversary of a series of arson attempts that damaged the Geology department’s field vehicles. Armed guards patrol the campus. Some have been harassing black students as they pass through check points to access the campus.

The meeting goes on to discuss what the faculty can do to solve this seemingly insurmountable problem, so many years in the making. Someone suggests outreach—teaching science to students in the Cape Flats to get them fired up about STEM, and prime them to diversify the room. Another suggestion is a stricter cap on the number of white students admitted to programs.

Then there’s the financial issue: even when non-white students can afford university, few can afford to go on to PhD and masters programs necessary for them to actually be competitive as scientists and as candidates for tenure. The people in this room have little say over the cost of tuition, but the discussion is important, someone stresses, because it’s hard to be aware of privilege when you have it.

The tension in the room is palpable. Something is different. Unlike in the lecture hall, it’s not easy to forget that those in the room are involved in sometimes violent protests, or that those who hold the fate of someone’s degree hold racial biases.

The conversations often exist in parallel: some are well versed in the philosophy of Stephen Biko and Frantz Fanon, but can’t summon up examples where, say, Western medicine should defer or credit traditional and tribal origins. Others understand the science deeply enough to be able to find places for improvement, but lack the tools to isolate them and formulate a solution.

Yet, occasionally, the dialogue meets in the middle, and those are the moments that give value to these plenaries. Though the factions differ in status, knowledge bases and privilege, they are all scientists—all are imbued with an innate sense of wonder at the unknown. These are people who understand that science builds on what is known. These are people who are negotiate a sea of data points to find a conclusion, who collaborate across oceans to forward one common goal: understanding.


[1] A widely used classification with origins under apartheid, referring to people of mixed race, Cape Malay or Indian descent. It is not considered a derogatory term in South Africa.

[2] Township refers to the communities established by apartheid governments to house residents displaced by segregationist housing policies. Today, the racial classification of the townships largely remains the same as they did during apartheid.


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