Driving SA's emergence as a scientific nation

Naledi Pandor. (Franco Megannonn)

Naledi Pandor. (Franco Megannonn)

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor is back in familiar territory. She has reclaimed the hot seat in a portfolio she occupied between 2009 and 2012 during which time she campaigned tirelessly for South Africa’s right to host what is considered one of the largest science experiments around — the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Full realisation of scientific benefits from this project are still some years away as construction is still in progress. But they are expected to be enormous: this is evident in the announcement in June this year by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT)’s  researcher Dr Roger Deane that three supermassive black holes had been discovered, providing the first observational support of gravitational waves as predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The radio telescope system used in this discovery is of a much smaller magnitude than the SKA, pointing to the huge potential the SKA will hold for scientific discovery.

Pandor said in an interview that the potential the SKA holds to uncover even more truths about the universe mirrors the type of scientific achievements that the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) supports. 

Although Deane is not a SARChI beneficiary, there are currently five Research Chairs doing work related to the SKA project.

Building competence

She said SARChI was making good progress in four key areas: producing greater numbers of postgraduate students; increasing the publication of scientific papers in international, peer-reviewed journals; seeing these papers cited by international counterparts; and elevating South Africa beyond basic research to commercialising and profiting from scientific discoveries.

This last outcome is supported by her department’s Centres of Competence initiative that aims to support the commercialisation of local intellectual property. Such centres have already been established to contribute to the economy and job creation by investigating the potential in various alternative energy sources, hydrogen and fuel cells, as well as battery and energy efficiency technologies.

While great strides have been made in achieving the SARChI objectives, the minister said she wanted to broaden the scope and reach into other universities that do not yet have similar research capabilities.

“I want to explore whether there are ways to support them through a similar model. Maybe of a different order, but we need to encourage them to participate in other areas of emerging science research,” she said. 

Her ultimate goal, however, is to extend the practice of science beyond research laboratories. “I want to make science public,” she said. “If we had the resources, I would like a science centre in each municipality to enthuse young people about science.”

This supplement has been paid for by Department of Science and Technology and its contents signed off by the DST and the National Research Foundation.