/ 22 October 2010

Biodiversity takes centre stage

Biodiversity Takes Centre Stage
Lapalala Wilderness School teaches children in Limpopo about biodiversity and how to take care of the environment.

The first national Young Scientists’ Conference in South Africa took place just outside Pretoria on October 12 and 13. It was an initiative of the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf), in partnership with the department of science and technology and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The conference, titled “Biodiversity in Focus: Exploring the Opportunities for South Africa’s Future”, was attended by more than 90 young scientists from 13 universities and eight science councils, as well as members of the government and private sector.

The conference started with short welcome addresses by Professor Robin Crewe, the Assaf president, Dr Phil Mjwara, the director general of the department, and Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, the president of the NRF. As the country’s official national science academy with a membership of about 340 members, elected on the basis of a lifetime achievement of excellence and scholarship, Assaf is aware of its role in fostering the next generation of young scientists.

The department is investing heavily in the science, technology and innovation sector. Through the NRF it is apparent that there is a commitment to increase funding for young scientists, which will enable them to prepare themselves for a scientific career.

The keynote address on “Biodiversity Science in South Africa” by Dr Belinda Reyers of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research emphasised the outstanding opportunities for biodiversity scientists presented by the unique natural laboratory in the country. South Africa has three biodiversity hotspots: the Succulent Karoo, the Cape Floristic Region and the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany region.

Compared with the total of four hotspots in North and Central America and five in the whole of South America, South Africa possesses a significant portion of global biodiversity in relation to its total land area. The country also has a long history of biodiversity science, not always a characteristic of other developing countries, and so has an excellent research foundation in the field.

The conference drew participants in other fields, including engineering, anthropology and economics, which demonstrated that biodiversity science is not the sole preserve of biological scientists and its future strength lies in a multidisciplinary approach. Topics included the use of local belief systems and values in conserving biocultural diversity, the microbial biodiversity hotspots in South Africa’s deep mines, the value of biodiversity for modern drug development and the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

The conference began the morning after the launch of The PhD Study, an Assaf report drawing attention to the paucity of South African PhDs compared with other developing economies. But if the attendance, quality of presentations and enthusiasm evident at this conference is an indicator of the future health of biodiversity science in South Africa, then there is cause for optimism.

Not all the young scientists at the conference were part of well-established research groups — many attended as individuals and as single participants from their institutions. It is hoped that the networking opportunities provided will stand them in good stead as they complete their studies and seek opportunities in the workplace.

Professor Roseanne Diab is executive officer of Assaf and emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal