R1-billion investment in science for the people


A malaria sporozoite inside an infected cell. A UCT research team led by Professor Kelly Chibale have identified a compound that may be the building block for a single-dose treatment for malaria. (Image by Ute Frevert; false color by Margaret Shear; source Plos Biology)

• Matile Malimabe
Chief information officer
Department of Science and Technology
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Sulaiman Philip

Publicly funded scientific research aimed at improving the lives of ordinary people got a major boost last week when the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) announced 54 new funded research chairs, bringing the Department of Science and Technology’s total investment to well over R1-billion, so far, in 157 research chairs at universities across the country.

Established in 2006 as a way to strengthen South Africa’s knowledge economy, SARChI’s original aim was to have identified and funded at least 200 research chairs by 2010. At the announcement of the new chairs on Friday 7 March, science and technology director-general Phil Mjwara said it had been a struggle to find suitable projects, particularly ones headed by black Africans and women. But, he told the room of academics at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, 157 out of 200 was still good progress: “My math may be a little off, but 78 % is still above a distinction.”

Blue-sky research

Public-sector research funding will allow South Africa to benefit from what deputy president Kgalema Mothlante, at the announcement in Pretoria, called “blue-sky research”. This research is flexible and curiosity-driven, with the potential to lead to outcomes not even contemplated at the outset. Unlike research in the private sector, which remains informed and driven by competitiveness, socioeconomic benefit is the driving force behind the SARChI programme.

From an original list of 400 submissions and a shortlist of 206, the numbers were whittled down to the 54 new research projects announced. The biggest influence in the decision was how the research best fit with improving people’s lives. The Department of Science and Technology was looking specifically for research in education, healthcare, fighting crime and corruption, rural development and job creation.

One example of successful blue-sky public research is that of Soraya Seedat of Stellenbosch University, who studies post-traumatic stress disorders. A SARChI chair since 2008, she spoke of the benefits the sciences gain from public funding: “This has given me carte blanche to be a science dreamer. It allows me to take risks by giving me the tools and funding to develop my research.”

South Africa is not looking to build a multibillion dollar Large Hadron Collider, the biggest example of basic “blue sky” research, but previous funding has included work done on the Square Kilometre Array, one of the largest and most ambitious telescope projects in the world.

Diverse disciplines

SARChI’s funding supports innovative research in disciplines as diverse as rural agronomy, chemistry, human sexuality and mathematical modelling.

The newly appointed chairs include:

  • Professor Paramu Mafongoya of the University of KwaZulu-Natal: With a primary discipline of rural agronomy and development, Mafongoya’s research aims to devise and implement innovative, science-based technologies to increase incomes and food security by increasing soil fertility and improving crop production in the impoverished soils of low-input subsistence farmers
  • Professor Chris Wolkersdorfer of the Tshwane University of Technology: Using hydrogeology and archaeology, Wolkersdorfer’s research into and monitoring of the mine flooding process has led to a theoretical treatment for acid mine waste water.
  • Professor Catriona Macleod of Rhodes University: MacLeod’s research on adolescent sexuality will be used to design and implement public-sector interventions in a range of health initiatives, ranging from HIV programmes to barriers in accessing reproductive health care.
  • Professor Gerhard Walzl of Stellenbosch University: Walzl’s research identifying the biomarkers for tuberculosis addresses one of the major healthcare challenges facing South Africa. His approach, beginning with basic molecular biology to clinical application, will be an important step towards combatting the disease.
  • Professor Jean Lubuma of the University of Pretoria: Lubuma is building mathematical models to help identify and track engineering and medical challenges and the best responses to them. His research also includes infectious disease and ecology of species modelling, with the hope that outbreaks and extinction can be prevented through early warning.

Science funding for new growth

Science and technology minister Derek Hanekom stressed that all the new research chairs received funding only if their research furthered the aims of South Africa’s New Growth Path. The funding, he added, would help the country become a leading research destination, and build a more knowledge-based economy. “An investment in knowledge bears the best returns,” Hanekom said. “To now we have created 1 000 research jobs and want to build on the human capital we will require going forward.”

Identifying the programme’s biggest success to date, he argued the potential benefits far outweighed the simple math of money spent and returns in jobs created. A UCT research team led by Professor Kelly Chibale, collaborating with the Swiss-based Medicines for Malaria, have identified a compound that may be the building block for a single-dose treatment for malaria. Pre-clinical testing will begin soon this cure for a disease that infects 3.3-billion a year – and kills up to 830 000 Africans a year.

“We want to create a vibrant culture of excellence in research, thus strengthening research capacity to advance the frontiers of knowledge,” Hanekom said. “This new knowledge will afford South Africa a competitive edge internationally and contribute towards growing the economy of the country and improving the quality of life of South Africans.”

Motlanthe stressed the importance of public funding of research in these areas, which were underserved in the private sector. “The imperative for the research chairs to derive research-driven solutions that ultimately contribute to a better life for all South Africans still remains, and cannot be wished away.”