Pursuing the best to deliver the best

Dr Albert van Jaarveld is the chief executive of the National Research Foundation. (NRF)

Dr Albert van Jaarveld is the chief executive of the National Research Foundation. (NRF)

Centres of Excellence (CoEs) are defined as physical or virtual entities of research that concentrate existing capacity and resources so that researchers can collaborate across disciplines and institutions on long-term projects.

These projects are locally rele-vant and internationally competitive to enhance the pursuit of research excellence and capacity development.

These centres have become a common research funding instrument, having already been established in several countries including Australia, Canada and the United States.

In 2004, following consultations with experts from various countries, the department of science and technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) developed a centre of excel-lence programme framework document to establish such centres.

The department and the foundation signed a memorandum of agreement through which the NRF was appointed to perform the operational management of the CoE programme.

The DST-NRF CoE Programme was launched in 2004, focusing primarily on South Africa. At the same time, the NRF actively pursued collaboration through bi-lateral and multi-lateral initiatives to develop and link in to centres of excellence across Africa, as well as with similar initiatives linked to building capacity through north-south collaborative ventures.

Currently, there are eight CoEs, as well as an institute that operates as a CoE:

DST-NRF CoE for Biomedical TB Research

This centre researches new tools for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of tuberculosis. Established in 2004 and hosted by the University of Stellenbosch (US), its principal director is Professor Paul van Helden. The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) (with assistant director Professor Bavesh Kana) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) (with assistant director Professor Valerie Mizrahi) co-host this centre of excellence.

DST-NRF CoE for Birds as Keys to Biodiversity Conservation

Understanding and maintaining biodiversity, using birds as indicators, is the focus of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute for African Ornithology. It was reconstituted in 2004, is hosted by UCT and the centre director is Professor Phil Hockey.

DST-NRF CoE for Invasion Biology (CIB)

This centre of excellence provides the scientific understanding required to reduce the rate and impacts of biological invasions to improve the quality of life of all South Africans during times of change. Established in June 2004, it is hosted by the University of Stellenbosch and Professor Dave Richardson is its director.

DST-NRF CoE for Tree Health Biotechnology

This centre promotes the health of trees in native woody ecosystems through the use of biotechnology tools. Established in 2004, it is hosted by the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria. Its director is Professor Mike Wingfield

DST-NRF CoE in Catalysis

This centre of excellence drives innovation in catalysis, a key process in the chemical and manufacturing sector. It was established in 2004, is hosted by the University of Cape Town and Prof Michael Claeys is its director.

DST-NRF CoE in Strong Materials

This centre seeks to understand and improve the properties of advanced strong materials to increase their efficiency and reduce their cost. Established in 2004 and hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand. Its director is Professor Lesley Cornish.

DST-NRF CoE in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis

This centre uses mathematics to understand, predict and ultimately combat diseases. Established in 2005, it is hosted by Stellenbosch University and is located at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. Its director is Dr Alex Welte.

DST-NRF CoE in Applied Climate Change and Earth System Science

This centre delivers a new scale of intervention in earth systems science in southern Africa. It was established in 2009 and is hosted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Council (CSIR). The CoE was conceived and initiated by Professor George Philander, developed further under the leadership of Dr Jimmy Adegoke. Dr Neville Sweijd is the interim director.

National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP)

This centre sustains a stimulating theoretical physics research and user facility. Established in 2008 as a recommendation of a review of the state of physics in South Africa, it is hosted by the University of Stellenbosch. Its director is Professor Frikkie Schlotz. Co-hosts are the Universities of Kwa-Zulu-Natal and the Witwatersrand.

In addition to the above CoEs, an open call was made in August 2012 for a new CoE in Palaeosciences which would incorporate palaeontology, palaeo-anthropology and archaeology.

The call for the CoE in Palaeosciences will be based on the The South African Strategy for the Palaeosciences (2011), which seeks to give expression to one of the goals of the national research and development strategy and aims to build on the existing African Origin Platform.

The department of science and technology, based on the minister's recent letter to the chairman of the NRF board, has also committed to funding five more CoEs.

The themes for these additional five CoEs will be finalised by the DST and NRF through consultation with the science community and an open call for proposals will be made in early 2013.

In June this year, the former minister of science and technology, Naledi Pandor, extended the period of support for the seven first cohort of the DST/NRF CoEs that were founded in 2004/5 and 2005/6.

The minister stated that the decision to extend the funding for another five years, making the support period 15 years, is motivated by the following:

• The excellent performance of the CoEs which have met and exceeded all performance milestones agreed upon; • The view that the 10-year period of CoEs is too short for the developmental context of South Africa; • There is also a need to match the CoE funding period to that of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) to create long term certainty and stability in the two funding instruments; and • The need to contain the potential loss of critical expertise in the CoE programme as centre directors and core team members seek long term tenure in SARChI.

A consequence of the continued funding of current CoEs by the DST and the NRF is the continued further commitment by host institutions to support the current CoEs and additional five new CoEs that will be rolled out in 2013.

For more information on the DST-NRF Centres of Excellence, please visit www.nrf.ac.za/coes or contact Dr Andrew Kaniki (executive director: knowledge fields development) [email protected] or Dr Nthabiseng Taole (programme director: centres of excellence) [email protected]

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