A conversation with Nithaya Chetty
A conversation with Nithaya Chetty
Jo: You are listening to Access 2 Perspectives conversations. My name is Jo Havemann. Today we're here with Nithaya Chetty, professor of physics at Edward Waters Ranch University in Johannesburg, South Africa. Welcome, Nithaya.
Nithaya Chetty: Great, glad to be here, Joe. Thank you very much for reaching out to me.
Jo: You wrote a commentary that was published in the University World News Africa edition on the 10th of March this year. And in that commentary, you expressed your concern about the war in Ukraine and the need, in your view, for scientific diplomacy in the light of historical events in South Africa. Could you please tell us a bit more about that?
Nithaya Chetty: So obviously, we all are extremely unhappy, to say the very least, with what's going on with the Russian invasion into Ukraine. And what really piqued my curiosity was South Africa abstaining from a nonbinding boat of the United Nations. And that raised a lot of eyebrows amongst us scientists here in South Africa because we have strong research collaborations with both Ukraine and Russia. And so abstaining from a boat that condemned Russia's aggression was quite difficult for us to understand. I got to say that South Africa has had a very tortured and very difficult history going back many centuries based on racial segregation and not respecting human rights and so on. And I would think following from the end of a party and release of Nelson Mandela, of course, and for a brief while, I thought that South Africa had the moral courage to stand up and to speak forthrightly on injustices in this world. And I've got to say that that was my primary reason for getting involved in this discussion, and that was that the government sought fit from a political point of view, not to strongly condemn the invasion. So as a scientist, I'm a physicist here at the University of Johannesburg. I'm currently the Dean of the Faculty of Science. And I thought that when I tried to follow a little bit of the conversation that had taken place not only within South Africa but abroad. And I just want to say that a number of our academics in South Africa did grow very anxious about the South African position. So I thought I'd stick my case, which I did. And I'm very glad that you picked up on my piece and so did a number of other colleagues in many different parts in South Africa and abroad. So I'm glad that I was able, at least to help shape some thinking around the role of science in this time of war. So I would say there are two aspects that come to mind when one talks about science and war, Joe, and the one is the more obvious one. You would hear a lot of folks saying that science has created the environment for what to take place. Of course, that is true. You can't dispute that. But I think there's an important role that science has always played and can play. And should play going into the future, and we should think about that. Of course, my first prize, of course, is I wish that there was no possible that people were there's no doubt about it. I wish that we could resolve our problems amicably. But if we go back on history, you know this as well as over all of time, that there's always been war. And so perhaps then we've got to accept that was inevitable from time to time and that we simply then now need to minimize the effects of war and always try to resolve complex amicably. That ought to be our starting position. But science has contributed to war. Let me start off with the negative aspects of science to war. There's no question in my mind that so long as there's been warlords, there have been interest in weapons, and the basis of weapons has been science, technology, and engineering. We've got to accept that. However, if one takes a very negative view about the role of science in this environment of conflict, then one simply misses out on an important part that science can play in the context of scientific diplomacy. So if you look at nuclear vision, for instance, in your great country is where nuclear vision was discovered. Uranium atom was first split in Germany. Your city played an important part in the fifties, and there was a purely basic scientific inquiry. It was just fascinated by the fact that you can split a uranium atom there's purely curiosity driven science, but it didn't take long before folk began to realize the possibilities of turning this into a weapon of mass destruction. And the same can be true of other scientific enterprises, isn't that you could look at chemistry and biology and so on. I mean, you can't stop people from researching into anthrax, you can't stop people into engineers from researching into how it is that you can project some kind of projectile into space with minimal effort and maximal sort of power. Those are scientific problems. But the moment you start engaging on those problems with scientific kind of curiosity, you invariably have individuals who are looking on the fringes, looking at possible ways in which that can be exploited for destruction. So we've got to recognize that one should not ignore the role that science has played in what currently looks like an existential threat that we are facing on this trend. And that is a worry. I would say that that is mostly directed research. And this is a key point that I would like to make in our conversation today that when research is directed by the government, for instance, or by even commercial organizations where they have a commercial interest, very little ethical value kind of comes to frame the work, just simply see this as an instrument for political gain or an instrument for economic gain. And there's no regard to the threat that this could pose toward humanity. The question that I ask you Joe, how can we counter this? What is a reasonable kind of credible way in which we can counter this? And it's a difficult thing to do to stand up to this. The central part of my message in my commentary was that Democratic Nations must nurture an environment of free inquiry, of critical thinking, of intellectual discourse, of having the freedom to speak truth to power and to ask the right questions and not to be afraid to do that. And we must constantly, as a human race on this planet, seek to achieve an environment where that can happen. Now, in this regard, then, science plays an extremely important role, because the remarkable thing is that you can travel half the way around the world, travel to Berlin beautiful city, travel to Beijing, to San Francisco, to South America, and so on. You can cross many different boundaries, across political boundaries, cross geographic boundaries, linguistic boundaries, et cetera, et cetera. But you still speak the same language of science. And that's an important and important matter that we should not overlook. That when political discourse fails. And currently today in the Ukrainian Russian conflict, you see that is failing in a very spectacular way. My point is that we've got to keep the scientific channels of collaborations open because those engagements are based on rational discourse, on critical thinking, on asking the right questions, on really rationalizing the situation for what it is. And if we shut down that channel of communication, Joe's, when I think we can really end up in a situation that's not so different from, say, North Korea, where you have a prior type of state and you have no dialogue between the rational folks that can keep those engagements open. So I would say that those are the most important ones. You asked me what motivated me. I think I'll answer that my conscience obviously forced me to step in. But scientific diplomacy folks often do blame science for the causes of the power behind war, and I don't disagree with that. But I want to say that we must in our Democratic system, strive to have an environment where we can have rational discourse and engagements across these many different divides that help spoke friendships ultimately. And this should not be underestimated as a force for peace. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. And I agree with what you said in regards to how can we bring scientific diplomacy to life. In the article University won't use. You outline a few starting points, and you also mentioned here just now we need to keep the conversation open. So I'm suggesting we should continue to collaborate with Russian researchers. And how is it possible to differentiate between those who are supportive of the tax by putting centralized to one person empowered to, of course, the conflict. But of course, with supportering people in this government and those who oppose the war explicitly and now find themselves in life threatening situations so that's a really good question, of course, and I would say that we wouldn't necessarily wage a witch Hunt trying to distinguish very carefully between those who are independent and critical and those who could be collaborating. But I think the moment there is evidence that is quite clear that individuals are supporting the war effort or contributing to weapons development, then, of course, one will have a serious problem with that. But do keep in mind, Joe, that number of Russian scientists very early on in the school did very bravely, I would suggest, express themselves in opposition to this war.
It's been under enormous threat of imprisonment and possibly also violent attacks against them, as we've seen some protesters been wrapped up in Moscow. A lot of folks have stood up. I think that we know the Russian scientific community well enough because we've had many decades of scientific engagements with Russia right across the world, that we do know that many of the Russian scientists, vast majority of them share the values that we aspire for. It's difficult for them to really now under the current circumstances, a month into the score, be able to express themselves very explicitly, extremely this distinction between directed research, where you have research laboratories and scientists working in national arms industry in Russia that are collaborating with the government, I get that those individuals would be considered to be problems, in my estimation. But we're looking at the open science systems environments where individuals have historically engaged in the manner that I've spoken about. And I think we should be very careful about isolating signs, open critical signs in Russia. I think it will set us back considerably. We should already start thinking about the rebuilding phases, and this will hopefully will come to an end, I hope, sooner rather than later. And I envisage and hope for a time sooner rather than later when we can begin the rebuilding phase. And it's precisely this cohort of scientists within Russia are going to be important for us to reach out to from the international perspective, so pragmatic ways to approach this. Now, I've also heard from not necessarily scientists, but people who are scared of what you just said, that Russia could turn into a bigger North Korea, like being isolated not only from inside, but also being expelled from all kinds of international consortium, including scientific consortium, which has happened not well. Some have refrained from excluding the Russian colleagues, but there's certainly a stirrup and reconsideration. How do you think collaborations with an aggressor state aggression the researchers within can be kept up for active research or in a way to support the researchers, even if they are currently not in a position or capable of conducting research the way they would like to. So before I answer your question, I want the audience to get the impression that I'm batting strongly for Russia here. It would be remiss of me not to firstly, at least emphasize where the real tragedy is and I haven't had a chance to talk about this. I do want to say that it's a great tragedy. What is happening in Ukrainian from the point of view of our own academic collaborations in that country, it's really of catastrophic consequences. I worry greatly about the scientists and students, including students from South Africa, because Ukraine has taken on a number of students over recent years and they've had to flee the country and head over to places like Poland. And of course, we know of the wanton destruction of property, millions of people displaced, thousands of people killed. But really it's a destruction of educational research and cultural facilities that I think is a great tragedy and really indicates the full Roth of the Putin regime. So with that, then I want to say that our greatest interests, our greatest efforts from around the world has to be focused on helping the Ukrainian scientists. So before I answer your question about the Russian scientists, which is certainly a matter that we'll discuss, but clearly the urgent issue that we need to talk about is the Ukrainian scientist. I'd like us to find ways in which we can home the scientists out in neighboring areas. But even here within South Africa, I hope that we could create an opportunity, at least in principle, we can receive Ukrainian scholars in our midst. And we have a long history, Incidentally of Ukrainian scholars that have immigrated to South Africa on the Dean of the Faculty of Science. We are now 100th year. Our University was established in the early 50s when Boris Polinsky had emigrated to South Africa. He became the Dean. He was sitting, not literally on this chair that I sit on now, but he picked up the more or less the year that I was born, it turns out. So it was a long time ago. He became the Dean of the Bag of Science and quite an excellent scientist. And we have many other Ukrainian scientists here at Witts University. We have a top quality mathematician who had already applied for Sabbatical leave to care for this year. And just so tragically, only barely a couple of weeks ago did I have to sign off on his postponement of his sabbatical to Ukraine. So even though we tens of thousands of kilometers away, we are directly affected. There's no question about it. And I hope that we can reach out to the Ukrainians, especially because of the South African abstention in the United Nations. The real litmus test, as far as I'm concerned, with the South African voters, with South Africa is really willing to condemn the violence to the extent that it needs to in the strongest possible terms, but also not turn it back on Ukraine. Ukraine has been an important intellectual partner for South Africa. It will be a great tragedy. So I do want to state that very clearly that I'm very concerned and very sympathetic toward the plight of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian scientists and academics in particular. So with that as a backdrop, then I'm happy to talk about Russia. Russian scientists do not need a lot of help right now. I don't think that we need to be doing anything extraordinary to reach out to the Russians. Russians continue to participate in meetings, international meetings. Many meetings occur online, thanks to COVID. So that is happening worldwide. Nobody is saying that you should not participate in meetings. I think some international scientific meetings that were scheduled to happen in Russia are probably being delayed or postponed or even canceled. So I don't think that we need to be doing anything extraordinary. But what I'm saying is that we should not undermine those efforts. I'm saying we should not shut down those channels of communication. But there's nothing extra that we need to be doing beyond what we have done. But the relationship is not as strong as the scientific relationship with every other country won't be as strong as it had been barely a month ago. It can't be because of what has happened. Thank you also for stressing the support, obviously, for the urgent need for support for Ukrainian researchers. There is quite a bit of initiatives or quite a lot of initiatives, especially in the research arena. There's a website. It's been put up less than two weeks into the war. It's called Signs for Ukraine. And also various sign up list spreadsheets where researchers from around the world can sign up and list spaces for housing and research opportunities that they have, particularly for Ukrainian researchers. We will put this also in the show notes. And we've also reported on this in previous episodes on this podcast and also on our website. And yes, there is obviously like as universities also being bombed in various cities now in Ukraine, as you suggest. Also, we should already plan because the urgency is real and the destruction is happening as we speak. How can we then later on, once reinstalled, how can we help to rebuild the scientific community in the country? And also how can we collaborate in the meantime and support Ukrainian researchers in particular, who are now left without any research facilities and also at the brink of without housing or anywhere to go? The support system within Europe is quite strong, but more and more people being the country, I think we have to spread more news about these opportunities to support. And I also agree that what you said, we got to science, diplomacy, that we keep up the dialogues with Russian researchers, many of which are also bianational. We've heard many stories that Russians, many Russians have their roots in Ukraine. There's many intermarriages, and it affects the whole world. With the trade network that we've built over the past 40, 50 years, poverty is going to increase across continents of Sahara, Africa. The effects are already showing the ripple effects of this very regional war. But what it has onto the world. Maybe towards the conclusion of this conversation, what do you think how interdisciplinary science, communication and interdisciplinary efforts in analyzing the situation could help? I'm thinking particularly around including or bringing to the table as a political scientist, researchers with a focus on peace and conflict studies, conflict resolution studies. Don't we have enough evidence on how to avoid such situations already? And how do you think scientists can influence politicians and inform politicians of less emotional, more rational decision making? Academics have an important role in this, there's no doubt about it. I myself am a theoretical physicist and yet I've gotten involved in this discussion because it's ultimately a matter that should interest every single human being on this planet. I don't know that one has to have a specialization. Political scientists, folk art in the humanities faculties, of course, they understand the history a little bit better and will understand the environment a little better. They will also hopefully be able to give suggestions of possible areas that could have the potential for conflict. In that sense, yes, we tend to be reactionary, isn't it? Something happens and then we all get so heavily involved in this. But the question that I ask is could this have been predicted? Yes, of course. I mean, the attention has been building up for the longest time and could we have established dialogue already, political dialogue, academic dialogue. Could we have gotten people together, peace loving people, I would suggest to really find ways in which we could build bridges between both the countries rather than, rather than create difficulty. I think we certainly should have been more Proactive with regard to the issues in Ukraine for the longest time now tensions have built up. Ukraine had become sort of a background for a lot of the Trump administration kind of shenanigans as well, and that did not help. So what we really need is to be able to talk very critically and very openly about the wrongs that have been happening. And we should have been doing this and alerted the world to the potential of this problem. Now we feel very deep in it. I think we're very much on the back foot, so to speak, and very much in a reactive way. My hope is that dialogue will continue. Both political dialogue and certainly scientific dialogue, I said should not be stopped because that is important for now, but also for the rebuilding phase. My great hope is that we will have a cessation of the violence and that reasonable people can come together and mediate a solution that's can work positively for both Russia and Ukraine. We want peaceful coexistence of both the countries with each other. And what we all have observed with Ukraine is that there's been a almost universal kind of outrage that has been expressed by people around the world. Not all I mentioned. The South African government has been very cagey about this because of their bricks relationship be part of Brazil, Russia in the China, South Africa, that's the bricks Corporation. But despite some of these and there were five countries, of course, that voted in support of Russia, including Russia, the United Nations, another 35 countries, I think that abstained. But the vast majority of countries did vote to support the condemnation of Russia. So I think there's hope, and I hope we can end this conversation on a note of hope. This has galvanized the Democratic loving people from around the world. There's no question about it. And here I'm talking about ordinary people, people on the streets. And of course, I speak very forthrightly, I think, on behalf of academics, because I'm in many ways engaging mostly with the academic community, not just here in South Africa, but abroad as well. And there's been universal condemnation. So that's something positive. And once we are in an era of peace, my hope is that we can get rational discussions that take place that do not involve or not dominated by those who have a destructive kind of nature, but those who really are keen to ensure lasting peace. And I would say that the future of Ukraine can be very bright. It can be very bright. I can see Ukraine as becoming a symbol for international engagements because the entire world has reached out to Ukraine. I don't know that we've been able to help very much in real terms, but the sympathy has been there. And I think Ukraine can, in a post war environment, draw on a lot of that positive energy that has been expressed from around the world. So I see Ukraine as becoming a center for international Corporation for really speaking out against human rights violations and becoming a champion for peace and goodwill. I can see Ukraine really stepping up to achieving that kind of status in a post war situation. So I do want to say that I'm very hopeful that Ukraine will usher in peace, hopefully sooner rather than later. Yeah, I share your notion of ending this conversation on a hopeful note. And yeah, we can leave it here. We provide a few resources in the comment section and show notes to this episode, if you would like. You're most welcome to share any concluding remarks. Anything else you would like to share? So, of course, I served on the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics. I'm the vice President there, and this is a global voice with physics. And I want to say that we've been very concerned at that level about the fate of Ukrainian physics and science more general. So I'm very glad that I've also been able to participate in those engagements that have been for countries from around the world. So I guess I should mention that here, but it's also helped shape my thinking. And I do want to acknowledge the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics and all of the Council members I serve as vice President, responsible for membership matters. I think that helped me think about the importance of scientific diplomacy and scientific engagement on an international scale. Because if you can create an environment where scientists can talk with each other in a rational way, I think this world can be a better place. Yeah. Thank you so much and all the best for your future engagements. I hear you have a few interviews on this topic lined up and thanks for making time for our conversation as well. Been a pleasure really, Joe thank you so much for reaching out. I appreciate that. All the very best in from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thank you.