Celebrating South Africa’s contribution to Science and Innovation

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When the question of innovation within the science and technology fraternity arises, South Africa is right up there among other nations that have made significant contributions to the fraternity. With a number of innovators and inventors that keep pushing the envelope, it seems our national flag may not be coming down from the helm anytime soon. Science and technology in their nature, are not static and require a sense of constant evolution from scholars, professionals, and research-intensive institutions. We believe that it is due to this fact, that our country keeps producing groundbreaking solutions and inventions, that make us an active participant, not only in the Global South but the world over.

Another factor that makes South Africa a positive contributor to the global science and technology fraternity, is the willingness to adopt innovative measures from other parts of the world. A good example of this would be the CoalCO2-X project which was successfully demonstrated at a cement plant in the Limpopo province in January of 2023. The project supports a carbon capture and utilisation technology, which captures carbon dioxide from flue gas and then converts it into a fertiliser salt using ammonia. The government through its Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), has invested about R50 million in the project, which has subsequently made provision for local small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs), to put in place partnerships to demonstrate the potential of flue gas conversion technology at the plant. This is a milestone towards energy security and the government’s commitment to transition from a carbon-intensive to a carbon-neutral economy.

Quite recently, we have seen a string of notable events that validate the need for academic leadership and investment in research-intensive institutions for science and technology. Well-published and often cited research physicist, Dr. James Keaveney, was awarded with the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust’s inaugural New Frontiers Research Award which is aimed at supporting South Africa’s reputation for research excellence. Dr. Keaveney will receive R1,5 million in research funding annually for the next five years on condition that he remains based at a South African university. With this funding, he will dedicate his time to enhancing Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning in a manner that is more effective and affordable. PET scanning is often used in the diagnosis and treatment of Tuberculosis (TB), which is one of the leading causes of death in South Africa. A breakthrough in this regard will address the lack of access to PET scanning in middle- and low-income countries such as South Africa. According to Dr. Keaveney, global interdisciplinary collaboration is key to expanding the horizons of particle physics and he’ll use his award to promote and develop, up and coming scientists in his field of expertise.

While on the topic of research interventions for cancer and other dread diseases, it would be remiss of us not to mention the launch of the Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure facility at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Tshwane, Gauteng Province. This is not ‘nuclear’ in the sense of military explosives as most might assume but explosive in the sense that it’s Africa’s first Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure facility, and that it seeks to advance drug development, clinical research and providing cutting-edge diagnostics and treatment in relation to cancer. The facility was brought to life through a collaboration between the University of Pretoria and the Department of Science and Innovation which invested a total of R85 million.

The facility was established within the framework of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap to enhance South Africa’s research in medicinal chemistry, to expedite the development of drugs to address national priority diseases such as cancer and Tuberculosis (TB). Not only is it Africa’s first but also one of 13 research infrastructure facilities established by the Department of Science and Innovation. Making it another key milestone in advancing South Africa’s bio-economy strategy. According to the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr. Blade Nzimande, it will assist in taking bio-innovations further down the value chain, from radio-labelling to preclinical testing, as well as contribute to good manufacturing practices and clinical trials.

Another noteworthy milestone is the Water Hub’s ability to repurpose contaminated and wastewater into reusable quality for vegetable gardens. The Franschhoek based research and demonstration site is led by Dr. Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town’s Environmental & Geographical Science Department and the Future Water Institute. The hub began its work in 2017, with the conversion of drying beds into biofiltration cells that use natural media, to treat contaminated water from an informal settlement to a quality that can be safely reused. Their work continues to attract scholars and international universities with a keen interest in sustainable water treatment and benefits.

The project’s expansion into facets such as the food–energy–water nexus work, dewatering of maturation ponds, cool shacks, and studies on the mobility and persistence of emerging contaminants in the water, soil, and plant uptake, have contributed immensely to the graduation of several Masters’ students. To top it off, the Water Hub has also won the gold Eco-Logic award, which identifies organisations that positively contribute towards a sustainable world.

These are just among the few milestones and contributions by South Africa to the science and technology fraternity. Whether it’s the world’s first middle ear transplant, through 3D-printing by Professor Mashudu Tshifularo, or the invention of the world’s first digital laser by Dr. Sandile Ngcobo – South Africa continues to cement its place among the most innovative nations across the world. Let us continue to support the government and the private sector in their efforts to foster the advancement of science and technology in the country.