South Africa boosts its science

August 29, 1997

Africa. South African industries and the government could soon be pumping half a billion rand (Pounds 66,500,000) a year into science and technology projects aimed at rapidly expanding the country's research base and global economic competitiveness. But it is only a drop in the ocean compared with the vast amounts spent by the country's competitors in international markets.

The Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (Thrip) pools the talents of industry, higher education and the state in research at the cutting edge of science, engineering and technology.

The idea is to pursue world leadership in niche areas of science, to be translated by industry into competitive products and new jobs. The research projects are also training an army of scientists to build a bigger research base for the country.

Now in its sixth year, Thrip is a long-term national investment involving more than 150 large companies and dozens of small, medium and micro enterprises, higher education and state scientists, the department of trade and industry and the Foundation for Research Development.

Two-thirds of the funding for Thrip's research projects comes from industry, the rest from the government. It is changing the nature of research in South Africa, as such initiatives have in other countries.

Economically promising projects and cross-disciplinary research are getting more funding, while competing companies are being encouraged to pool their efforts for potentially greater financial reward. Thrip also provides a research lifeline for cash-starved universities and technikons.

"It has become an important player in the research funding scene," says John Martin, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town and an A-rated scientist. Last year Cape Town got R12.5 million (Pounds 1.65 million) from Thrip, more than any other university.

"Scientists researching areas that interest industry now have enormous potential for leverage funds for their work," says Professor Martin. He and Daya Reddy codirect Thrip-funded research into the numerical simulation of materials processing.

The downside is that research with no industrial link, in fields such as astronomy and physics, is being starved, he says.

"With the shift towards more applied research it is getting harder to sustain fundamental research. But we need all parts of the research base to be strong."

Last year 173 Thrip projects supported 138 researchers and 1,053 students. In 1997 there will be far more. Projects were concentrated at 13 universities, most but not all of them historically white, and nine technikons. Eighty-three engineering research projects made up nearly half of the total, followed by the biological and physical sciences.

Thrip projects generated 19 patents, 407 research publications and 443 conference papers.

This year the programme will spend up to R150 million on scientific research and training - more than double the R58.3 million spent last year, which was itself some 250 per cent up on R16.4 million spent in 1995.

Tjaart van der Walt, an FRD director in charge of Thrip, estimates that the investment will soar to half a billion rand within three to four years, nearly half of the total amount of money currently spent on all research and development in South Africa.

But this is small change compared with the money being pumped into research and development by industrialised nations: South Africa invests only 4 to 5 per cent per capita of the money spent by countries such as the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany.

"These are much wealthier nations, but we have to compete against them in the global market in niche areas. It is crucial to establish a culture of investment in research and technology, and to develop a much larger skills base for the future," says Dr Van der Walt.

"South Africa needs to think long term."

Like most areas, research is increasingly being informed by circumstances in South Africa, says Khotso Mokhele, president of the FRD. "The government has developed a new paradigm for research, linking it more directly to socio-economic imperatives."

The new National Innovation System policy, drawn up by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, is encouraging research that develops the skills and resources needed for socioeconomic development, improved quality of life and enhanced industrial competitiveness.

While this is important, Dr Mokhele continued, South Africa has to be very careful not to over-direct research to tackle the problems industry and politicians want solved.

"There must be a healthy balance between applied research and blue sky research," he said.

With Thrip becoming "one of the most important catalysts for research funding in South Africa", as Dr Van der Walt describes it, research is increasingly being driven by the demands of industry.

"The programme is also encouraging universities and technikons to align themselves more closely with the needs of the market."

Thrip is also developing strategies to support research more actively at historically black institutions. "This is essential if we are to fully develop skills in South Africa," says Dr Van der Walt.

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