/ 9 December 2016

A roadmap for South Africa’s research future

South Africa's SANAE IV research base in Antartica.
South Africa's SANAE IV research base in Antartica.

“World-class research infrastructure is the basis for building competitive knowledge-based activities,” Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said at the launch of South Africa’s research infrastructure roadmap.

The country has a relatively small science system and needs to consolidate its resource, which is major reason behind the roadmap, the first of its kind on the continent.

Roadmaps “allow funders to budget knowing what can be expected … and force researchers to come together to share their ideas and work for the national good,” the report authors write.

For South Africa, this roadmap takes the form of 13 projects, with a price tag of R1.97-billion for the first five years. The department of science and technology has set aside R643-million for the first few years.

In order to maximise the return on investment in research, scientists and researchers must have access to modern and appropriate infrastructure. To underpin this, adequate levels of funding for such infrastructure should form a key component of any national research system, saidPandor.

Here are the 13 projects that will shape South Africa’s research future:

  • 1. National centre for digital language resources

Although South Africa has 11 official languages, they have not been developed to the same degree. The national centre for digital language resources aims to create and manage digital resources and software for all of the country’s official languages to stimulate and support research and development. This infrastructure will be spread across the University of South Africa, University of Pretoria and North-West University, and will not only collect and document languages, but provide the tools and resources to develop language tools, such as dictionaries and translation software and apps.

2. An expanded terrestrial and freshwater environment observation network

Southern Africa will feel the consequences of a changing climate in our lifetimes, but we cannot prepare for these effects if we do not know what is happening in our environments. Climate change is not the only stress on ecosystems: development and a burgeoning population are also taking their toll. The expanded terrestrial and freshwater environment observation network will collect data so that decision-makers and government will know which environments are under stress and how to balance the need for development with the imperative to conserve and protect the environment. The infrastructure will be distributed over six different landscapes, each measuring hundreds of kilometres, with a central service and information hub.

  • 3. A nuclear medicine research facility

South Africa already has a strong track record in nuclear medicine: it is one of the world’s major producers of radio isotopes, which are used to diagnose cancer safely and non-invasively. The nuclear medicine research facility will be a medical imaging facility dedicated to drug development and clinical research, with a team of radio-chemists, vets, pharmacists, medical physicists, and number medicine physicians. The goal is for this facility to be a “sought-after destination for preclinical and clinical screening of new drug entities that can be performed under one roof, giving drug developers (local and international) a one-stop shop”, the report authors write.

  • 4. A network of health and demographic surveillance sites

It is difficult to keep tabs on a large and dispersed population. South Africa has 56 million people, spread over a country that is 10 times larger than England. At the same time, we’re struggling with the triple burden of inequality, poverty and unemployment.

This is where the health and demographic surveillance national research infrastructure comes in. “The government is putting policies in place, but [needs] feedback in real time of what’s working and not working,” says the University of Witwatersrand’s Dr Mark Collinwood.

There are already nodes that collect this data, one of which is headed up by Collinwood in Bushbuckridge. The new network will integrate these nodes and create others, with representation of more than 1% of the population.

  • 5. Natural science collections facility

Natural science collections are like libraries for scientists and researchers, but in South Africa there is no centralised facility — we have collections, in varying levels of upkeep, dotted around the country in universities, research councils and museums. There are more than 30 million preserved plant, animal and fossil specimens, for example. “Collections-based research is often considered foundational, because it provides knowledge that is critical for most other research fields,” says the roadmap. “The specimens in the collections are used by local and international scientists for documenting and describing biological diversity and exploring its origins and evolutionary relationships, as well as for investigating various facets of global change.” This national facility will comprise a central co-ordinating hub, with a network of existing collection institutions collaborating and contributing.

  • 6. Shallow marine and coastal research infrastructure

A major strategy for South African science has been geographic advantage: from radio astronomy to palaeosciences, we try to play to our strengths. An important feather in our cap is our 2 500km coastline, as well as our foreign territory, the Prince Edward Islands. As the oceans rise with increasing temperatures, we are likely to see more extreme weather events and coastal areas are likely to bear the brunt of it. The shallow marine and coastal research infrastructure will comprise an array of instruments and physical research platforms around the coast of South Africa and its sub-Antarctic islands. It will build on the existing observatories, sentinel sites and research platforms. This infrastructure will “collect long-term reliable data for scientific research to help decision-makers formulate appropriate environmental policies to lessen the risk and vulnerability of the coastal zone to climate and global change”, according to the roadmap.

  • 7. A distributed platform for “omics” research

African populations account for 16% of the 7.4-billion people on the planet, according to the Population Reference Bureau, but their genetics are some of the most understudied. Your genetics determine your disease risk as well as your response to medications, known as pharmacogenetics.

This is particularly true for South Africa’s crucible of populations. The country also has extensive animal and plant biodiversity, and these untapped resources could give rise to new medicines and products — if we can characterise and research them.

“Omics” include genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and bioinformatics, but these areas of research require significant investment in terms of equipment and infrastructure. According to the roadmap, the “omics” platform aims to “bring together existing infrastructure into a whole that enhances availability, accessibility and affordability of ‘omics’ technologies in South Africa, enhancing South Africa’s research and innovation capacity in the biological, biotechnological and biomedical research”.

  • 8. Biobanks

Biobanks are libraries for genetic material, and are a growing trend worldwide. A bank containing millions of samples with the donors’ medical and demographic information would allow scientists to conduct research with the possibility of statistically significant results. Through biobanks, South Africans could one day have access to personalised medicine. “The biobank will house biomaterial collections of strategic value to South Africa, serve as a back-up facility for tissue collections of high value, serve as a technology transfer and training centre, and conduct research on the science-of-collections,” the authors write. Human genetic material is not the only tissue housed in a biobank: it would also be a repository for plant and animal tissues. It is expensive and labour-intensive to take and store samples. A central facility would mean less duplication of effort and resources — as well as stringent ethical controls. It would be “a national asset for the benefit of conservation and biotechnology development”.

  • 9. South African marine and Antarctic research facility

South Africa is in a unique position: not only is it flanked by two oceans, the Indian and the Atlantic, but it is also very close to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. Because it is so stormy, the Southern Ocean is one of the most understudied in the world, even though this is where scientists think we will see the fingerprints and drivers of climate change. It is the only ocean surrounded by other oceans, and is known as the “lungs” of the world’s oceans. Oceans are also playing an important role in Operation Phakisa, the government’s plan to use the oceans and coasts to boost South Africa’s economy and create employment. The country also has extensive marine and Antarctic social infrastructure, and this facility will expand on the infrastructure and bolster the country’s ability to conduct scientific investigations and collaborate internationally in this under-researched part of the world.

  • 10. Nano-micro manufacturing facility

Nano- and micro-manufacturing opens the door to a new world of technological solutions. This market is expected to exceed $10-billion by 2018. But because it involves making very, very small products, whether they are electronics, sensors or light emitters, you need special equipment. “While many research groups in South Africa are already active in this field, they lack facilities and equipment to advance the research and development of products to a higher technology readiness level in order to compete internationally,” the roadmap says. Government has already earmarked health and clean water diagnostics as an important area for product development. A nano-micro facility would enable the production of low-cost and high-volume novel devices and sensors.

  • 11. A solar research facility

South Africa is struggling to secure a sustainable, green energy supply, but — with its clear skies and sunny location — it is also one of the best places in the world for solar energy generation. The research infrastructure roadmap includes a single-site national solar research facility for both photovoltaic and concentrated solar power technologies to test different solar-energy solutions at a mega-watt scale. While one goal is to develop and commercialise novel local technologies, South Africa also needs skilled operations and maintenance personnel to support the solar industry. This research facility aims to do produce both technologies and skilled people, while performing scientific research and increasing its masters and doctoral graduates.

  • 12. A materials characterisation facility

The government wants to reposition South Africa as a knowledge-based economy, rather than a raw resource exporter. Mining is a good example of this, and is why beneficiation (adding value to raw materials) has become a buzzword. “If South Africa is to beneficial its resources, increase metal and other materials fabrication and generally be competitive, it needs comprehensive state-of-the-art materials characterisation and testing infrastructure,” the roadmap says. This facility will be shared by industry and academia, with a central hub co-ordinating access to equipment and expertise around the country. The hub will “provide information on available services and capabilities, assist with access, connect the local system to internationally based facilities, assist with the training of experts and operators, traceability and accreditation, and host specialised meta-infrastructure not available elsewhere in South Africa”.

  • 13. A biogeochemistry platform

Humans and our early ancestors have walked southern Africa for millennia, with the traces of this interaction in the rocks beneath our feet. The biogeochemistry research infrastructure platform will be able to tell the story through investigating the biology, chemistry and geology of human interaction with the environment through the ages. But this sort of research platform is not only about looking at the past: it involves characterising existent natural resources — whether it is the age and health of an underground aquifer or the quality of energy resources, such as uranium or coal. The facility, which will be able to date specimens and analyse their composition, among other things, will be based at the centrally located University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, making it will be accessible to the whole country.