/ 27 May 2011

Investing in knowledge and innovation

Investing In Knowledge And Innovation

The National Research Foundation (NRF) is the Government agency tasked to bring science to the lives of all South Africans.

It does so by ensuring that South Africa has a dynamic research community that conducts world-class research to offer solutions to national challenges. In terms of its strategic plan Vision 2015, the main aim of the NRF is to promote and support a national system of innovation that:

  • Develops highly skilled human resources;
  • Generates knowledge; and
  • Provides world-class research infrastructure.

Developing Human Resources
South Africa’s growing knowledge economy, based on research, development and innovation, requires a strong and sustainable human resource base. For this reason the NRF supports scaling up the production of PhDs from the low base of 1 380 PhD graduates in 2009. The NRF also follows an integrated approach to people development and promotes and supports a pipeline of human capital starting with learners at a school level to researchers that are internationally acknowledged for their research output and expertise.

The NRF’s South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) focuses on coordinating science communication, science education and science engagement programmes. Its aim is to entice learners to explore the wonders of all knowledge fields from an early age and help teachers fuel a life-long passion for scientific enquiry. Through its Research and Innovation Support and Administration (RISA) entity, the NRF is building skills in the next generation of researchers (students), emerging researchers and established researchers. By funding their studies and research, the NRF strengthens research leadership and the capacity to address national plans and strategies.

Generating Knowledge
The transition from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy is triggered by the production of new knowledge. The NRF promotes development in areas of scarce and key skills and supports knowledge areas where South Africa has proven competence and enjoys a geographic advantage for unique knowledge generation (such as astronomy and biodiversity). In the different knowledge fields, the NRF manages a range of programmes aimed at supporting various categories of researchers and levels of research skills. For instance, Thuthuka focuses on supporting emerging black and women researchers, while the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) and Centres of Excellence (CoE) promote research at the higher end. They all share the same aim: to build human capital while supporting the generation of new knowledge.

SARChI Chair holders comprise some 1.5% of the active researchers in the country and produce 4.5% of the national research outputs. Eight CoEs collectively graduate some 24 PhD students per annum. SARChI and the CoE programmes have also been successful in retaining leading South African scientists in the university system and attracting leading foreign and expatriate researchers to South Africa. The NRF aims to contribute to the knowledge economy in South Africa by attaining at least 1% of global R&D output by 2015.

Providing Research Infrastructure
The National Research Facilities of the NRF provide cutting-edge research, technology and innovation platforms and offer researchers across the country access to research equipment, national research infrastructure and international research networking opportunities. The facilities are clustered in terms of the areas of knowledge production or the national need that they service:

  1. Astro/Space/Geosciences
  2. Biodiversity/Conservation
  3. Nuclear Sciences

Large science infrastructure projects that position South Africa for attaining scientific excellence include, amongst others, the Square Kilometre Array bid, the Southern African Large Telescope, the Proton Therapy Centre and the High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscope.

Measures are also in place to support innovation and technological development in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, alternative energy technologies and address challenges and opportunities presented by climate change. Through its integrated approach the NRF is well-positioned to support and promote high-level human resources, new knowledge and state-of-the-art-research infrastructure. The NRF provides opportunities – its supports people, research and research infrastructure that can make life better.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement