New Centres of Excellence to advance interdisciplinary research

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld. (Supplied)

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld. (Supplied)

April was abuzz with political parties on the election trail, but electioneering was not the only buzz. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) launched five new Centres of Excellence (CoEs) at universities in South Africa. The five new centres will promote collaborative research and provide support and postgraduate training in priority research areas.

If South Africa is going to be a leading knowledge economy, it must have the necessary skills and knowledge. Both the 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology and the 2002 National Research and Development Strategy identified CoEs as the vehicle to train the next generation of South African scientists and increase human capacity.

The new Centres bring the total number of CoEs established since 2004 by the DST and the NRF to 14. 

The CoEs take the lead in researching various areas of national interest and are designed to raise international competitiveness to enhance the pursuit of research excellence and capacity development. They are physical or virtual entities of research that concentrate existing capacity and resources to enable researchers to collaborate across disciplines and institutions on long-term projects. 

South Africa’s DST-NRF CoEs are in the process of training the next generation of scientists and knowledge workers that will have the skills and knowledge to make South Africa a leading knowledge-based economy. The CoEs also take the lead in researching various areas of national interest and contribute to the government’s priorities. CoEs were designed mainly to accelerate the delivery of appropriate human resources and knowledge capacity, as well as to enhance the international competitiveness of South African research in pursuit of research excellence and innovation. 

The other nine CoEs that have been established since 2004 and an institute that is operated as a CoE are:

DST-NRF CoE for Biomedical TB Research

Aim: to research new tools for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of tuberculosis. 

Established in 2004 

Hosted by the University of Stellenbosch

Director Professor Paul van Helden

Co-hosts University of the Witwatersrand, headed by Professor Bavesh Kana; and the University of Cape of Town, headed by Professor Valerie Mizrahi

DST-NRF CoE for Birds as Keys to Biodiversity Conservation

Aim: focusing on understanding and maintaining biodiversity using birds as indicators.

Established in The Percy FitzPatrick Institute for African Ornithology reconstituted in 2004

Hosted by the University of Cape Town

Director Professor Phil Hockey

DST-NRF CoE for Invasion

Biology (CIB)

Aim: to address the biodiversity consequences of biological invasions. 

Established in June 2004 

Hosted by the University of Stellenbosch 

Director Professor Steven Chown stepped down in May 2012 to take up the post of Professor and Chair of School of Biology, Monash University, Australia. Professor Dave Richardson took over as director in June 2012.

DST-NRF CoE for Tree Health Biotechnology

Aim: to concentrate on understanding and combating diseases affecting South Africa’s indigenous trees 

Established in The Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute was reconstituted in 2004 Hosted by the University of Pretoria 

Director Professor Mike Wingfield 

DST-NRF CoE in Catalysis

Aim: to drive innovation in catalysis, a key process in the chemical and manufacturing sector 

Established in 2004

Hosted by the University of Cape Town

Director Professor Michael Claeys. 

DST-NRF CoE in Strong Materials 

Aim: seek to understand and improve the properties of advanced strong materials to increase their efficiency and reduce their cost  

Established in 2004 

Hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand

Director Professor Lesley Cornish

DST-NRF CoE in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis

Aim: to use mathematics to understand, predict and ultimately combat diseases

Established in 2005

Hosted by Stellenbosch University and located at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

Director Dr Alex Welte

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

Aim: to deliver a new scale of intervention in earth systems science in southern Africa

Established in 2009  

Hosted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). 

Director The CoE was conceived and initiated by Professor George Philander, developed further under the leadership of Dr Jimmy Adegoke and is now being managed by Dr Neville Sweijd

DST-NRF CoE in Palaeosciences 

Aim: to address research questions relating to the South African Palaeosciences heritage record. The themes are conceptually linked to serve the ambitions of four overarching key research questions: How does the South Africa’s Palaeosciences record improve our understanding of the origins of species? What are the key behavioural transitions in hominid prehistory, including the origins of modern human behaviour? What are the Earth systems that drive evolution? What are the roles of extinctions and radiations in the evolutionary process? 

Established in 2013 

Hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand 

Director Professor Bruce Rubidge.

National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP)

Aim: to sustain stimulating theoretical physics research in South Africa

Established in 2008

Hosted by the University of Stellenbosch 

Director Professor Frikkie Schlotz

Co-hosts the University of KwaZulu-Natal and University of the Witwatersrand 

For more information on the DST-NRF Centres of Excellence funding instrument, please contact Dr Romilla Maharaj, acting executive director: research chairs and centres of excellence, at or Dr Nthabiseng Taole, director: research chairs and centres of excellence at

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