- The South African Department of Science and Technology today launched a new structural organisation of the country's science sector with an aim of addressing the so-called "brain drain". From now on, there are six Centres of Excellence that are to become the spearheads of South African science.
The fields of biodiversity, biotechnology, engineering, health and physics will be the centres' focus areas. In these scientific fields, South Africa's government now hopes to recruit international scientists instead of losing own researchers to northern scientific centres.
The establishment of these centres was announced today by South Africa's Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation. The new Centres of Excellence are getting a flying start with an investment to the tune of rand 45 million. Six centres were established today; more are to follow in the future.
The six Centres of Excellence include the one for invasion biology (University of Stellenbosch); a centre dubbed "Birds as Key to Biodiversity Conservation" (Cape Town); one for catalysis (Cape Town); one for strong metals (Witwatersrand); one for tree health biotechnology (Pretoria); and finally one for biomedical TB research (Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch).
- There are a number benefits associated with funding research through a centre of excellence approach, the Ministry said in a statement today. "The investment in excellence by the government will build a foundation for other sources of funds resulting in a more coordinated effort around funding for scientific research," the statement explains.
Small but related research initiatives by individual researchers and groups were to be built into large transdisciplinay research programmes, thus "raising the quality, visibility, esteem and international competitiveness of South African science," spokesman Nelvis Qekema of the Department of Science and Technology said.
South African authorities hope that this will ensure increased research output to further increase South Africa's global share of research output. "This is clearly a global trend in knowledge production, which has seen an increase in the number of authors per article in recent times," Mr Qekema says.
The launch of the Centres of Excellence represent the implementation of one of the ideals entailed in South Africa's National Research and Development Strategy, which was approved by the government in 2002. The process started with a call for pre-proposals in 2003, to which the NRF received a total of 70 applications.
The final six full proposals were selected through "a rigorous assessment process," authorities say, which included an international peer review of the scientific merit, the managerial capacity in the proposed centres, the output related to student education and training.
- A major challenge in Science and Technology is the lack of sufficient numbers of appropriately trained human resources, Mr Qekema noted. "Scientists and engineers who are skilled at masters, doctoral and post-doctoral levels are in short supply in South Africa, resulting in grave consequences for our innovation system and economy."
To further compound the problem, there were "very high levels of mobility out of the science and technology system into careers that are not science-related and through emigration," he added. South Africa is a major victim of the so-called "brain drain", were experts educated in the country move out to make a more lucrative career in Europe or North America.
The new structure of the science sector may help prevent this, authorities hope. "The high level of research and training at post graduate levels, coupled with increased research funding and long term transdisciplinary programmes to be undertaken will lead to increased employment opportunities in cutting edge scientific research areas for the brightest of our young people," Mr Qekema says.
- It is envisaged that this initiative will also result in a brain-gain for South African science and technology as South Africans and Africans in other parts of the world may be inclined to exploit the opportunity created through the research infrastructure we are creating, the Department's spokesman added.
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