SA, UK spearhead R500-million fund for joint scientific research

Scientific partnerships are about “finding things that matter to both our societies”, Professor Robin Grimes, chief scientific adviser in the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told the Mail & Guardian ahead of the launch of the Newton Fund.

Both the UK and South Africa have pledged R500-million over the next four years to the Newton Fund, which aims to promote joint scientific research and capacity development. Science Minister Naledi Pandor and the UK’s Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, signed the agreement on Tuesday.

“It’s true to say that the UK’s [scientific] partnership in South Africa has not been as strong as it once was … We’ve had other priorities,” said Grimes. “We are incredibly fortunate at the moment to have a number of different programmes that will allow us to fully engage with South Africa.”

Funding from many sources
Pandor said in Parliament on Tuesday that the latest partnership is “a milestone in the science and innovation co-operation between [the] two countries”, and that the funding will come from a variety of sources, including the two governments, their science councils, nongovernmental organisations and the private sector.

The fund, named after British physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton, will focus on areas such as public health, the environment, food security, “big data” and capacity building, the department of science and technology said.

In terms of capacity building, Grimes said: “We’re interested in the two-way flow of students. We would like to be able to host South African PhD students in the UK for part of their studies, and [have] UK [students] spending time in South Africa.”

The specific activities agreed upon include:

• A UK-SA joint research programme between the two countries’ medical research councils, looking into the improved prevention, detection and control of tuberculosis;

• Research partnerships between pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in the UK and South African medical research councils investigating noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer;

• Funding to allow postgraduate students to move between the two countries, with up to 90 Newton fellowships (worth £4.5-million) and 150 mobility grants (£1.1-million) for students in the natural sciences, engineering, patient-oriented research, social sciences and the humanities;

• Astronomy for development, which will involve £1-million joint funding, for the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and South Africa to promote SKA research and the African Very Long-Baseline Interferometry Network, which will see radio telescopes in different African countries; and

• A weather and climate science partnership, with up to £1.8-million in joint funding, will involve collaboration between the UK’s Meteorological Office and the South African Weather Service.

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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