MPs to get science classes

South African MPs would be offered a science policy orientation course next year, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor told the closing plenary of Science Forum South Africa. The plan is to roll this out to other African countries.

Political buy-in is vital to science and research, particularly in a constrained economic environment. Pandor wants the country to spend 1.5% of its gross domestic product on research and development; this percentage is linked to economic development and job creation. However, South Africa currently spends 0.8%, compared to more developed economies which spend more than 2%, and Pandor’s departmental budget has stagnated.

“As political support and appreciation of science is critical… We will be facilitating a science and technology policy orientation course for parliamentarians early in 2018,” she told the audience in Pretoria on December 8. She hoped to see “a significant rise in the number of parliamentarians participating in next year’s forum”.

This year managed to attract some Cabinet members, though. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the forum’s keynote address, in which he emphasised the need for science: “We have a responsibility to develop a community of young people that believe there is a future for science in South Africa and the continent,” Ramaphosa said. “They must see themselves as agents of development….

“The word smart should underpin whatever we do. If we work smart, we are working in a clever way, an innovative way, a scientific way.”

Communications minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane participated in a panel about the need for more science journalism and communication in South Africa.

Pandor, in her closing, also flagged the need to train students, both in South Africa and in other African countries. She announced the creation of five new research chairs in African countries. South Africa’s local research chairs initiative, run by the National Research Foundation (NRF), has accelerated postgraduate training and academic publication in the country.

“Close to 200 eminent researchers have taken up these Chairs at South African universities, significantly increasing and improving our national research output and providing valuable impetus to advanced researcher training,” Pandor said.

She said that her department was in negotiation with struggle stalwart Oliver Tambo’s family and foundation to make it an eponymous programme. 2017 is the centenary celebration of Tambo’s birthday. In her budget speech earlier this year, Pandor referred to him as “one of South Africa’s giants … who was an outstanding maths and science teacher before leading Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the ANC”. Tambo was ANC president from 1967-1991.

“It is our intention that this programme will be called the Oliver Tambo Research Chairs programme. If all goes well, we look forward to welcome these distinguished Chairs to our next Forum,” she said at the forum closing.

It was a speech filled with announcements, including that South Africa planned to throw its hat into the ring to host the World Science Forum in 2021. Initially held only in Hungary, this biennial forum decided to increase its global footprint and so is held outside of Hungary every second year. This year, it was held in Jordan. In 2013, it was in Brazil.

“International collaboration is imperative for the advancement of not only African but global science,” she said. Cabinet this week approved the plan for South Africa to bid to host it here “in order to further raise the profile of African science and firmly place African science as the center of attention of the global stage”, Pandor said.

This would be the first time the conference was held on African soil. “Watch this space, as they say.”

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