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South African science reaches for the stars [Print to PDF] [Print to RTF]

South African science is on the up. Thanks to strong support from the highest levels of government, in the last few years the science budget has increased dramatically, and the country has set itself the goal of become a preferred destination for science and technology.

South African science reaches for the stars
South African science is on the up. Thanks to strong support from the highest levels of government, in the last few years the science budget has increased dramatically, and the country has set itself the goal of become a preferred destination for science and technology.

Earlier this year the South African Government announced plans to further boost its science budget to €331 million, and the country hopes to be spending 2% of GDP on science by 2017.

At an event in Brussels to promote South Africa-EU science cooperation, Dhesigen Naidoo Deputy Director-General of the South African Department of Science and Technology outlined his country's science and technology ambitions.

'We have projected a long-term trajectory, and this has very, very powerful support from the highest echelons of the South African political system, but also South African industry,' he told CORDIS News. 'It is our intention to become a major knowledge hub in the world.'

One goal is to expand the country's biotechnology platform and develop a bioeconomy base. These plans were given a boost at the end of 2006, when the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) decided to locate its African component in Cape Town. The organisation currently has components in Trieste, Italy and New Delhi, India. The new Cape Town component will focus initially on infectious diseases, but its remit is expected to expand to include fields such as agricultural biotechnology.

Another discipline where South Africa excels is astronomy. The South African Large Telescope (SALT) already attracts researchers from around the world and the country is bidding to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest radio telescope on the planet. In its roadmap for research infrastructures, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) described the SKA as 'a machine that transforms our view of the universe'. The other country to make it onto the SKA site shortlist is Australia, and a final decision on the matter is expected towards the end of the decade.

South Africa's new science strategy includes a major human capital development programme, which is focused on getting more young people into science as well as funding initiatives for interdisciplinary projects and knowledge transfer. Other subject areas due to receive money include nanotechnology and space science. The country also plans to develop a hydrogen economy, something it is well placed to do, as over half the world's platinum comes from South Africa. Platinum is used as a catalyst in the hydrogen power process.

Like Europe, South Africa is concerned that not enough of its research results are being turned into products, and to this end it is setting up the Foundation for Technological Innovation. 'This is a very special project,' explained Mr Naidoo. 'This is a public institution that will stimulate the development of technology enterprises in the South African system by looking at the current knowledge base and developing from that knowledge base products, services and processes and creating the right kind of support environment to take them into the real economy.'

As well as boosting science within its own borders, South Africa has been extremely active in promoting research at the wider African level.

'South Africa has been fairly fundamental to developing the science and technology platform in Africa,' explained Mr Naidoo. 'In fact South Africa convened the inaugural meeting of the African Ministers' Council on Science and Technology called AMCOST and was quite critical in developing a consolidated plan of action for science and technology for the continent.'

Plans for science in Africa include regional centres of excellence in a range of disciplines, which will both carry out research and act as training centres. Other activities include creating a network of African academic institutions and national academies of sciences to build a continental platform for knowledge sharing and collectively addressing common challenges.

There are also plans to set up an African Science and Innovation Fund, and a decision on this is likely to be taken at the next AMCOST meeting in September.

'A fund is needed,' said Mr Naidoo emphatically. 'The thing that we have to be quite clear about in Africa is that the fund needs to have a number of partners, and it cannot only be outside of Africa partners that contribute to it, so there has to be a significant African contribution as well, in line with the goals of NEPAD [the New Partnership for Africa's Development].'

Ultimately Mr Naidoo is optimistic about South Africa's scientific role both in Africa and the wider world. 'We are very keen to make contributions to solutions for global challenges,' he said. 'It isn't just about South African development, it is also about African development, it's also about global challenges like climate change and we're a willing partner and increasingly more able partner.'
Source: CORDIS News interview with Dhesigen Naidoo

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  • South Africa
Record Number: 27591 / Last updated on: 2007-04-30
Category: Interview
Provider: EC