South Africa wins Newton prize for ocean science and food security

The 2020 Newton prize has been awarded to Nelson Mandela University’s Professor Mike Roberts, who is head of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) in Ocean Science and Marine Food Security. The award, which recognises “teams of people making an essential contribution”,  was made for the chair’s research in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) which extends from South Africa all the way up the east coast of Africa. The WIO is facing an ecosystem and livelihoods disaster, and is warming faster than any other part of the global ocean.

“The livelihoods of 60-million people in the WIO directly depend on the ocean,” says Roberts who has been a specialist marine scientist for 30 years and who received the  prize, worth R4-million, during a virtual awards ceremony on 4 November.

Roberts explains that coastal and marine ecosystems are rapidly declining and likely to collapse within the next 15 years if current trends persist. Poor communities lacking the tools and resources to quickly adapt will suffer the most from these changes. In addition, organised fisheries crime, destructive fishing practices and high levels of pollution are heavily affecting the Western Indian Ocean.

“Through the chair we are pursuing intensive research to understand and address the key questions of what sustains marine food security in the WIO, what the underpinning ecosystems are and how they function in this era of climate change and changing global oceans,” says Roberts.

The chair is jointly hosted by Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in Port Elizabeth, the University of Southampton and the Southampton-based National Oceanography Centre in the United Kingdom and has established an Innovation Bridge and Regional Hub (IB-RH) network to build partnerships between institutions in Africa and the Global North to tackle ocean science challenges. 

According to Roberts, all ocean issues have global implications and governments and organisations need substantive research, information and data in order to address the urgent but under-reported WIO crisis.

The innovation bridge facilitates active research flow between the Global North and Africa, with regional projects including South Africa, Tanzania, Somalia, Mozambique, Comoros, Madagascar, Kenya, Mauritius and Seychelles.

The Ocean Science Campus at NMU forms the principal southern footprint of the IB-RH in partnership with Rhodes University, which provides expertise in fisheries science and ocean governance to the alliance.

“Having Prof Roberts and this chair at Nelson Mandela University has given us a major platform from which to engage in collaborative international research and solutions to address this very serious problem,” says Dr Thandi Mgwebi, deputy vice-chancellor of research, innovation and internationalisation at NMU.

“Our project is making use of satellites, ocean models, marine robotics, and other state-of-the-art technologies capable of studying these complex and remote ecosystems. It includes studying the upwelling systems in the WIO,” says Roberts. NMU recently established a marine robotics unit to support this research.

Upwelling is the upward movement of deep, cold, nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface, encouraging the growth of phytoplankton (microplants which form the base of the marine food web), which ultimately provides food all the way up the food chain to the top marine predators. Together with ocean physics, upwelling directly underpins marine food security. As the planet’s climate is changing, so is the ocean’s upwelling system, strongly affecting all levels of the food chain in the WIO, and, very importantly, fisheries.

“To find solutions to address the WIO’s problems requires an intensive transdisciplinary research approach. This encompasses research in physical oceanography, biogeochemistry, plankton, trophic ecology, fisheries and food resources, quantified by end-to-end ecosystem and socio-economic modelling,” says Roberts who emphasises another extremely important role of the chair – to increase the number of master’s and PhD students in ocean sciences throughout Africa. “You cannot build the research capacity required to innovate Africa’s solutions on food security and other ocean challenges and opportunities without top researchers.”

“We already have 36 master’s and PhD students registered, a number of whom have spent time at the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre to acquire specialist technology skills,”  Roberts continues, adding that 78% of the students and postdoctoral fellows are women.

The project has already provided crucial analysis of ecosystems in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Madagascar. Now they want to look at the marine ecosystem challenges facing Mozambique, and the Newton prize money will be used for this.

“We’ll do a 12-month assessment of the marine food insecurity problem in Mozambique in order to facilitate joint project planning, further research and mitigation measures with the Mozambican government,” says Roberts.

In making the award, Professor Alice Gast, Imperial College London president and Newton prize committee chair, said: “The Newton prize recognises and celebrates the power of collaboration and capacity building within countries with an emphasis on important, cutting-edge research that matters.”

She added that the Newton Fund projects and awards are part of a UK and worldwide endeavour to use science, research and innovation to help meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and to support essential contributions being made to achieve these. The applications for the award were assessed by 400 external reviewers from around the world who volunteered through Unesco.

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Heather Dugmore
Heather Dugmore is a journalist and specialist writer for higher education

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