Science knows no boundaries

Johannesburg – The importance of the advancement of a Pan-African agenda for science and the role of science, technology and innovation in creating collaborative responses to common challenges across borders.

Including coronavirus that’s sweeping across the globe, were highlighted at the 7th Annual Science Forum South Africa 2021 held at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria this week.

With a proud record of facilitating the formation of new partnerships, the science forum, which ran between December 1-3, brought together leading local and international experts to discuss ways that science, technology and innovation could help address global and local challenges.

Founded in 2017, the forum is the brainchild of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).

This year’s forum was held under the theme Ignite Conversations About Science, and most of the event’s 60 different sessions were held virtually in line with the country’s Covid-19 restrictions on the number of attendees at gatherings and with the intention of maximising attendance by transcending geography. Only a limited number of people attended physically.

Though largely conducted remotely, the sessions still allowed for active participation from across the world.

The topics included the Covid-19 vaccination landscape in Africa; smart, green and sustainable transport partnerships; strengthening pandemic preparedness through knowledge transfer; the future of South Africa’s hydrogen economy; and the integration of the
humanities and social sciences in response to the Covid pandemic.

In his virtual opening address, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Dr Blade Nzimande, welcomed scientists and noted that science knows no country nor boundary.

“The #SFSA2021 brings together a variety of scientific schools of thoughts, individuals and organisations from all corners of the world to enable critical reflection of contemporary challenges faced by humanity,” said Nzimande.

“The challenges that face humanity today do not really recognise the borders that exist between our various countries.

It is these trends and opportunities that arise from our interconnectedness that necessitate and justify the existence of platforms such as this one.”

Nzimande also highlighted that thematic outline of the forum was in line with the mission of the DSI’s objectives to:

• promote public discourse on science in South Africa

  • foster partnerships both domestically and internationally
  • advance the African agenda for science and give Africa an open science event equal to other science events globally.

The main speakers at the SFSA 2021 included Dr Martin Friede, vaccine research coordinator at the World Health Organisation (WHO), and Prof Tulio de Oliveira of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP).

The discovery of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 by South African scientists has highlighted both the significance of genomic sequencing and the critical importance of vaccinating populations.

Both Friede and De Oliveira are doing extensive work in these fields.

Friede gave an extensive account of the importance of mRNA technology transfer initiative, an effort that is necessary in Africa.

He said when pandemics show up infrastructure, including the technology, should already be in place to enable swift production of vaccines.

A recent announcement of WHO and the Covid Vaccines Global Access initiative to create the first Covid messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa, a first for Africa, was welcome news.

Friede said mRNA would not only produce vaccines for South Africa, but for all of southern Africa. He saw long-term benefits for mRNA infrastructure.

“We hope Covid will come to an end one day and then what?”

For him, the mRNA facilities could play a major role in the country’s scientific environment as “that is going to enable us to make other messenger ribonucleic acid vaccines, vaccines against TB, malaria, and maybe even vaccines against HIV.

And these are the diseases that are critical in Africa.”

De Oliveira, whose KRISP centre in KwaZulu-Natal identified Omicron and made the variant known to the world, praised the role of women at KRISP, noting that 80% of the team was made up of women in science.

Dr Phil Mjwara, the director-general at the DSI, spoke about how innovation had great potential to significantly contribute towards socio-economic growth and development in South Africa.

He particularly noted that in the wake of Covid-19 many countries turned to
science, technology and innovation to find solutions to the ongoing pandemic.

“Today, as a result of investments made in key research and innovation areas across the National System of Innovation (NSI), South Africa is harvesting the benefits of a small but effective science system,” said Mjwara.

“The investments made in the NSI since the inception of the department 25 years ago have enabled government to respond to the needs of the country in critical areas, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

He also mentioned three roadmap plans that are being championed by the DSI and government to make sure innovation drives fundamental change in society.

The first one is the Innovation Revitalisation Agriculture (RDI) Plan, which seeks to employ multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional agricultural bio-innovation programmes to drive productive value chains.

Another is the SA Mining Extraction RDI (SAMERDI) Strategy, which provides a roadmap on working collectively towards technological solutions that will increase safety and productivity, reduce costs, and ultimately extend the life of mines.

Overall, the SAMERDI Strategy will result in the modernisation of mining in South Africa through innovative drilling and will restore mining prowess.

Mjwara also touched on the Decadal Plan, an overarching plan to “deepen the knowledge economy for enhanced socio-economic impact”.

Ambitious in scope and far-reaching in its vision, the Decadal Plan seeks to ensure that innovation is more than science.

The plan aims to achieve an increased positive impact on SA’s socio-economic and environmental priorities, as well as maintain an equilibrium between a focus on impact (for example, inclusive innovation) and continued investment to develop the system (for example, in systemic enablers such as knowledge creation and institutions).

The opening day also featured a high-powered panel discussion that touched on South Africa’s pioneering response to Covid.

The panellists were Dr Thulani Dlamini, CEO: CSIR, Dr Lawrence Banks, director-general of the ICGEB, Dr Val Munsami, CEO: SANSA, Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, assistant director-general, Unesco, Daniel Ndima, CEO: CapeBio.

All of them agreed that it was due to South Africa’s scientific excellence that Omicron was discovered and they were united in condemnation of the isolation because Omicron was first discovered in South Africa.

In his closing remarks, Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, thanked the speakers for acknowledging the role women have played in science.

Manamela announced a new agreement between the ICGEB and the DSI, which will see South Africa hosting the ICGEB’s Africa Component at the World Science Forum in Cape Town in December next year.

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