/ 31 August 2009

Scientific impacts felt on all levels

The story of a little girl who grew up with two hearts recently touched many people as it made news broadcasts worldwide.

Not all scientific breakthroughs make it to the global news arena, yet they are happening all around us on a daily basis, mostly going unnoticed.

Every tiny detail of the world around us is touched by the natural sciences: from the air fresheners that can now ‘think for themselves” to the plethora of technological one-touch appliances, to the medical breakthroughs that give us options that were unthinkable just thirty years ago.

‘The broad natural sciences (science, engineering and technology) are increasingly becoming the driver of economic competitiveness around the world,” says newly appointed National Research Foundation (NRF) president and CEO Dr Albert van Jaarsveld.

‘Performance of a nation state in this area is considered a good indicator of economic performance into the future. Underlying the ability of any nation state to perform in this domain is the strength of their high-end human capital skills. In addition, in a global context, those areas in which future job opportunities are likely to grow the fastest are in the high end skills areas, particularly ICT and health services,” he says.

Joining of hands
Research plays a major role in the life of a scientist. In recent years the government, notably the department of trade and industry, has made major strides in engendering the joining of hands between university research facilities and that of industry.

Not only does this approach lead to faster, more targeted research answers, but it also allows for the development of skilled people who understand the link between research and technology development from both endpoints.

Uncovering fraud
Large, medium and even smaller enterprises have stepped into programmes to develop new technologies as well as answers for existing problems, such as a project run by the University of Stellenbosch that uncovered the fraud in the wine industry in which some producers added flavourants to their Sauvignon Blanc in 2004.

Thus science stepped in to uncover fraud even in the viticulture field. Many other science research areas lead to fraud detection answers, most of them on a technological level. Often one discovery leads to further research, as happened with the wine discovery.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) administers the team, which was commissioned by Winetech and is supported by funding received from the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (Thrip).

Ongoing research is undertaken on vine viruses and optimal grape composition programmes. ‘Research no longer stands alone, outside of the mainstream of industry,” says Dr Van Jaarsveld.

‘It has become an integral — and integrated — process of business”. ‘We are also seeing that small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) have come to the fore in joining hands with researchers — an area which, in the past, was deemed that of large business only. At present more than half of our Thrip projects have SMME partners”.

NRF funding in the science, engineering and technology sector last year topped R730-million. Scientific developments find answers in the area of developing new products, or new applications for existing ones.

Step by step, or sometimes in leaps and bounds, developments add new products and systems. After all, about twenty years ago we had no inkling that the internet would change the face — and practical implications — of doing business — in such a fundamental way.

It’s about people, too
Developing people and transferring existing skills is at the forefront of research these days. The University of Stellenbosch’s Institute for Polymer Science (IPS) was recently named the Unesco Associated Centre for Macromolecules and Materials.

This is but one example of how the role of research in South African tertiary education has received recognition as being of world standard.

Now students from previously disadvantaged universities, as well as all other universities in Africa, are being trained at IPS.

Many ground-breaking projects have seen the light at the IPS already, including the development of rocket propellant for the military, desalination techniques and the development of polymer coatings for ‘green” packaging with partner Mondi.

Said Prof Ron Sanderson who retired last year after spending his career focusing on polymer research: ‘Much has changed in recent years, with the emphasis in research now being in the application, not merely in the development of things on the basis of being new or hitherto undiscovered.

This is what drives science nowadays — the ability to translate what we do in scientific research trials into business success and everyday use.” Direct impact on local communities is also a compelling part of the NRF funding agenda.

At the Durban University of Technology’s centre for water and waste water technology, the focus is on what to do with water that nobody wants.

Professor Faizal Bux’s team is concerned with investigating how microorganisms contribute to waste water treatment.

Described as a male Erin Brokovic for his community and environmental activism, Professor Bux’s project centres around producing potable water for local community use while at the same time promoting cleaner production mechanisms for industry.

Changing the face of tomorrow
The developments in the field of natural sciences have played a major role in agricultural advances on a global scale.

On the way to the final production phase genomic developments in the agricultural sector as a whole is changing the face of tomorrow.

Says Professor Mike Wingfield, director of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (Fabi) at the University of Pretoria: ‘Remaining competitive with products that are internationally attractive will, in all likelihood, become progressively more important in this sector in the future. Our aim is to assist with this process and this is achieved by goal-directed research undertaken in partnership with the role players in the industry.”

Fabi last year had 120 postgraduate students working under its 15 academic staff members. Wood products such as cellulose (the fibrous material derived from trees) have found their way into a wide range of products, from packaging to dress materials, meaning that materials derived from trees are no longer just used for paper or furniture production.

Science therefore works in the field of design, art, dressmaking and the clothes we wear, too. It is much more than just a person staring down a microscope looking at microscopic material. Yet the biosciences, and in particular biotechnology, have found a foothold in global trade.

Responsible business
Against the backdrop of sustainable and responsible business practices, finding new ways to do existing things is about more than mere novelty.

Ridding the environment of residual harmful products we have been putting into it has become an area in which our scientists have taken their place.

Says Dr van Jaarsveld: ‘Remuneration for scientists has recently deteriorated in relative terms, but those who choose this field are usually driven by other factors too, like an intrinsic curiosity, which calls out to be satisfied. In the high technology industries such as biotech and nanotech, salaries are significantly higher than in non-science industries and these fields are attracting people. On the whole, South African scientific training is internationally recognised and our scientists are sought after. This makes the retention of high-end skills in the scientific field a challenge we cannot ignore”.