The Department of Science and Technology (DST) would like South African researchers to make better use of the opportunities provided by the country's membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The DST is South Africa's designated lead department for scientific cooperation with and through Unesco.
"It's two things," explained DST director: multilateral cooperation Cecil Masoka to Engineering News Online on Friday. "We're trying to indicate that there are important opportunities for cooperation with Unesco and with other member countries of Unesco, especially in maths, science and technology. Second, there our ability to leverage opportunities Unesco offers us, not only with Unesco but also with other international bodies."
An example of the latter opportunity is provided by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), located in Trieste, in Italy, and closely associated with Unesco. "It has excellent facilities," reported Masoka. "They're very high standard masters and PhD programmes that they're running." Because South Africa is a member of Unesco, South Africans automatically qualify to participate in ICTP programmes.
Currently, some 50 South Africans attend the ICTP every year, a figure that the DST still considers small. "We're hoping to increase that and that that increase will start happening later this year or earlier next year," he said. "This would benefit South Africans in the theoretical physics space."
In a presentation on Friday to the forty-fifth Plenary meeting of the National Science and Technology Forum, in Kempton Park, east of Johannesburg, Masoka pointed out that Rhodes University, in the Eastern Cape, had submitted a bid to host a Unesco Category 1 Institute concerned with water education. This would serve to complement Unesco's already existing but oversubscribed Institute for Water Education, located in Delft in the Netherlands.
A number of South African universities already host Unesco Research Chairs, he noted. These are the University of South Africa, with a Chair in nanotechnology, the University of the Western Cape, with a Chair in geohydrology, Limpopo University, in biotechnology and the Tshwane University of Technology, in technological entrepreneurship. Unesco does not provide much funding -- most has to be raised by the institutions and Chair holders themselves -- but hosting a Unesco Chair brings a lot of prestige to an institution.
Masoka cautioned that Unesco was not a funding agency. South Africa had to be able to fund by itself any projects that it undertook with Unesco. But there were also opportunities for South Africa and Unesco to jointly cooperate with other UN agencies and programmes and other third-party public and private partners.
He pointed out that, in the field of the natural sciences, Unesco catalyses international cooperation, acts as a platform to share ideas and set standards and promotes dialogue between scientists and policy makers. It also advocates for science and builds science capacity.