Hotbeds of scientific excellence

Naledi Pandor. (Franco Megannon)

Naledi Pandor. (Franco Megannon)

New Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor has a mission that is inspired by a story her father told her. 

“In 1952, there was an outbreak of gastroenteritis in Port Elizabeth. The only community leaders at the time were ANC people. They did their research and found the information necessary to educate the community. They went from door to door telling people about a simple rehydration mixture of salt, sugar and water, which could and did save lives.” 

Within weeks the outbreak had petered out, thanks to this crucial and evidence-based piece of scientific information. “That’s the kind of place I would like to see science occupy in our society.”

The discoveries made by scientific researchers are key to a healthy, prosperous community. “We’ve got to make science a public issue,” says the minister. “Science can help us solve some of the challenges with which we are confronted.” This includes, she says, tough challenges such as poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Because science is a pillar of economic success — countries with a robust and thriving scientific research community, which leads to applied science, are more likely to have active and growing economies. 

How do you jumpstart scientific innovation? How do you encourage research? Since 1995, when the National System of Innovation came into being to address our gaps in innovation, South Africa has made enormous strides in advancing science, with the enthusiastic support of the department of science and technology (DST).

One successful measure the DST embarked on in 2004 is the establishment of Centres of Excellence, a model that creates special, multi-disciplinary nodes of science focused on solving specific and targeted challenges.

The country looked around the world for successful ideas to jump-start innovation, draw in, nurture and retain talent and build a powerful scientific resource; they found this one in Canada, says Pandor. 

“Canada had a scientific brain-drain, so they developed this model to keep and attract good scientists.”  South Africa has taken this model and run with it, establishing a number of Centres of Excellence, each with a goal-orientated focus.

Centres of Excellence are defined by the department as “physical or virtual centres of research that concentrate existing research excellence and capacity and resources to enable researchers to collaborate across disciplines and institutions on long-term projects that are locally relevant and internationally competitive to enhance the pursuit of research excellence and capacity development”.  

“We wanted to attract the best minds in the disciplines we were funding,”  says the minister. 

Societal challenges

The disciplines chosen for support reflect the demands of the “Five Grand Challenges” identified by government, which the minister describes as “developing South Africa’s bio-economy, developing space science and technology, providing energy security, responding adequately to global climate change and increasing our ability to anticipate the complex consequences of change due to human and social dynamics”.

These became priority areas for investment in science, she adds, with the choice refined by reference to four criteria: where possible, to use our geographic advantages (the Square Kilometre Array leverages South African skies unpolluted by light, for instance, while solar energy leverages our high number of sunny days), the possible contribution to economic development, the benefit to developing human resources, and whether an initiative builds on what we have achieved since the advent of democracy.

The disciplines selected were also informed by the existing capacity in the country, the minister says. “If we have the TB and HIV centre in Cape Town, it’s because there you have scientists who were already working together on the issue. Creating the centre pools that expertise; there’s also an interdisciplinary focus, so you bring in mathematicians with their mapping talents and your microbiologists. 

“Specialists in a range of domains are being drawn together so that we get maximum benefit from the choices we make. Teams coalesce in a natural fashion; those who establish the centre will then attract the rest - they’ll identify what their needs are and what the gaps might be.”

Some of the centres are purposefully shared across not only universities (the University of the Western Cape shares the new Centre of Excellence in Food Security with the University of Pretoria, for instance), but also draw on expertise from other relevant institutions, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), to leverage capacity in all spheres of our society.

With the recent announcement of five new centres, South Africa has a total of 14 multi-disciplinary intersections of scientific talent, focused on issues ranging from biodiversity to tuberculosis to strong materials (materials with commercial potential that retain their properties under extreme conditions). 

There are also two centres that don’t have the same standing academically as the rest, the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP) and the DST-NRF Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS).  

Developing capacity

The primary and most important goal of the centres is innovation. “There must be some benefit that accrues to South Africa,” says Pandor. But not far behind this goal is developing human capacity in a range of sciences.

During the 2012/13 financial year, the nine centres of excellence then in existence and the NITheP produced outstanding results, including 880 publications in research literature (publication is a major measure of the work done by scientists). 

But they also, critically, supported 652 postgraduate students, a 75% increase over 2011. An active focus on transformation also bore fruit, with a total of 300 female students getting support from the centres. And, for the first time, more than half the students were black.

Putting a group of accomplished scientists together with decent funding is naturally going to further the aim of offering study and research opportunities to young people. 

“By establishing centres that draw this repository of intellectual worth together, we support both our objectives as a government and a range of scientific objectives: development of human resources, publication and support for innovation.”

The National Research Foundation is tasked with oversight of the centres and reports to the DST. If a centre is not meeting its goals in a range of aspects, from development of human capital to publication, questions will be asked and, of course, the ultimate sanction — the withdrawal of funding — can be applied.

The long-term nature of the funding is one of the most attractive aspects of the Centres of Excellence for scientists both here and around the world. Far too often funding for research is project-dependent and covers a relatively limited period, perhaps three years.  

Research initiatives do draw collectives of people together, but they scatter again as the project draws to a close. A legacy of shared knowledge and experience, and of human capital development, may well be lost or diluted that way. In contrast, South Africa’s centres of Excellence are assured of funding for extended periods. In fact, following a recent review, seven of the centres had their funding extended from 10 years to 15 years, and two Centres that had been only 50% funded will now be fully funded. 

Scientists know that it is possible to do solid and innovative work in these time periods.

“I think we must say kudos to the Treasury, because they’ve understood that you need this level and nature of funding to make the advances that we want as South Africans,” Pandor comments.

The potential rewards of the Centres of Excellence are already apparent. One example: scientists at the CSIR have developed a novel technology to convert the rare mineral titanium, usually provided in ball-form, into a powder, which is easier to use. They’re now piloting its production in industrial quantities. Meanwhile, young scientists in the Western Cape are working on producing hydrogen cells and at the University of Johannesburg promising solar energy technology is being advanced. “We have the mineral resources and we have the geographic advantage to play in this space of renewable energies,” says the minister with a smile.

“I’m thrilled that we have these Centres of Excellence, and that we’ve been able to attract such talented scientists; I would like to see government expanding the model, because it works so well.”

The contents of this supplement were supplied and signed off by the National Research Foundation.