by Rizel Delano


The importance and challenges of scientific and industrial research in a democratic South Africa

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The National System of Innovation (NSI) is broadly defined as a network of players in a country, which interact to constitute the country’s innovation system by the application of knowledge.

Constituted by an Act of Parliament in 1945, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) thus plays a vital role in NSI and is one of the leading science and technology research, development and implementation organisations in Africa.

South Africa’s national imperatives and global challenges provide the macro strategic framework within which the CSIR conducts its research.

CSIR chief executive officer Dr Sibusiso Sibisi says, “The research role of the CSIR and other science councils such as tertiary education institutions (TEIs) and private sector is essential in NSI and the sustainable growth and development of South Africa.”

Generation and application of knowledge in the CSIR therefore takes place in domains such as biosciences; the built environment; defence, safety and security; materials science and manufacturing; natural resources and the environment.

“Additional areas of competitive science unique to local and global circumstances include nanotechnology, synthetic biology and mobile autonomous intelligent systems.”

The challenges facing scientific and industrial research – the CSIR in particular – are similar to the challenges facing South Africa in general, says Sibisi. “This includes a huge shortage of scientific and technical skills which are in high demand from a range of sectors.

“This is, of course, linked to the challenges faced by the South African education system, particularly with respect to mathematics and science education. In order to produce the numbers of technically skilled people required by the economy, we need to do a better job of educating our young people – a resource we cannot afford to waste.”

The latest R&D Survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council shows that SA spent only 0.76% of gross domestic product on research and development in 2011/12, the lowest percentage since 2008/9 and well below the 1% target set by government and the global average of 1.77%. Of particular concern is the decline in private sector R&D investment.

There are two other interlinked challenges facing scientific and industrial research in SA, says Sibisi. “In the first case there’s a set of immediate social and economic priorities the government has to address, for example poverty, inequality and lack of access to basic services, and limited resources to address these problems.”

There is therefore a special obligation on the science and technology sector to justify the use of financial resources, particularly when the immediate benefit that will be derived from that work is not obvious.
“The need to demonstrate the impact of scientific R&D work is a problem that affects publicly funded R&D organisations all over the world. This is not an easy question to resolve, and the CSIR is implementing a framework to assist in answering this question.”

Related to this is the obligation to identify and solve the problems that will have the greatest impact on the South African economy and society in general.

Sibisi points out, “This means we cannot choose just the problems that are interesting or easy to solve. We have to take into account the final impact of our work, and the cost of devoting resources to one problem over another.”

SA needs to ensure its science, engineering and technology workforce reflects the diversity of its population, both in terms of population group and gender. “We should be guided by national priorities, and in our case these are clearly articulated by the National Development Plan (NDP),” says Sibisi.

The NDP is based on high-quality technical inputs and represents a consensus view on how development in SA should proceed in order to best meet the needs of all people. “However, given our limited resources, we need to find those areas in which scientific and industrial research can have the greatest impact.”
“Within the CSIR, we’ve chosen to focus on issues, among others, pertaining to human settlements, transport and water infrastructure, the use of information communication technology in healthcare delivery, health infrastructure, support to the establishment of the National Health Insurance, technologies for water and waste water, contributing to work on global climate change and renewable energy and alternative energy sources.”

“Each of these areas is, in its own right, critical for the long-term sustainability and development of South Africa,” stresses Sibisi. “There are also a number of cross-cutting areas that are important, one such is our support for the implementation of SA’s Broadband Policy.”

While this sector will provide a direct and growing opportunity for job creation, its true value resides in its ability to improve efficiency and productivity across all sectors by enhancing communication and information flows.

One area in which further improvement is necessary is the country’s disappointing performance on the global innovation stage.

Sibisi explains, “One of the ways in which this could be improved is to improve collaboration between the private sector and research institutions. We need to ensure SA moves beyond the odd start-up company to becoming a major innovative player in certain industries.”

He reckons leadership in this field is based on the understanding that everything ultimately depends on the quality of the work of scientists and engineers. He says, “Leadership is about finding and attracting the best scientific talent, and providing the three key components to give them the best opportunity to succeed.”
The three key components include: an enabling and efficient support structure; a system for identifying the right problems and the optimal way to address those problems; and the resources to ensure having the best possible chance of solving the problem.

As the only multidisciplinary research council tasked specifically to foster industrial and scientific development, the CSIR plays an important role in developing talent that will drive social and economic development.
Sibisi says, “The fact that we have more than 1 800 scientists and engineers working in an institution dedicated to improving the quality of life of South Africans is an indication that the role of scientific and industrial research is taken very seriously,” says Sibisi.

CSIR scientists play an important role in analysing the scale and effects of global climate change, and are playing leading roles in the reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.

“The southern hemisphere is relatively under-studied and we have a particular interest in developing climate models that focus on this part of the world,” says Sibisi. “One of our climate change specialists, Bob Scholes, is rated a top scientist in his field and is a leading international expert on climate modelling.”

The CSIR established a national centre for nano-structured materials in which world-leading research in the industrial applications of nano-technology is performed. “The head of this centre, Prof. Suprakas Ray, is a leading chemist rated among the top chemists internationally.”

In science there is no guarantee that any particular problem can be solved in any given time period. “Sometimes you have to accept a solution is something that possibly only future generations will be able to generate,” says Sibisi.

Leadership is making sure we minimise the risk of failure due to non-scientific reasons like inadequate resources, poorly specified problems or failures in our support systems.

There is no doubt science and technology R&D work will continue to be valued and funded in the future. “There’s still a lot of room to grow the overall level of investment in R&D, particularly from improved collaboration between private sector and R&D institutions.”

Although SA has come a long way in the past 20 years in a new democracy, the country still faces many problems that need to be addressed, “and science and engineering research are critical components of resolving those problems.”

Regarding the future in technology, Sibisi is unwilling to speculate. “Predictions about technology are almost always wrong, even from experts in the field,” he says with a smile.

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