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Aug 31, 2012

Academy seeks to make voice of science heard on key SA challenges

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The Academy of Science South Africa (ASSAf) is the only national science academy to be officially recognised by national government through the passage of the ASSAf Act 67 of 2001, as amended, which came into operation in May 2002.

ASSAf is the driving force behind government in implementing new or amended policies to deal with some of the country’s major challenges. The academy is also an important leader in the promotion of science education and development in South Africa.

“The mandate of the academy is to promote and inspire outstanding achievements in all fields of scientific enquiry and to grant recognition for excellence, as well as proactively, or upon request, undertake studies on matters of public interest with a view to providing evidence-based scientific advice to government and other stakeholders,” explains ASSAf executive officer Prof Roseanne Diab.

ASSAf president Professor Robin Crewe says the recommendations are is a key area of future development for South Africa in its endeavours to improve health and education as well as the security of energy, food and water resources.

“Policies and guidelines for academy projects and activities are carefully developed, published and followed up by the council in ensuring transparency and accountability. Recommendations are followed up to ensure that government implements them,” says Diab.

The academy is governed by a council of 13 members, one of whom one is appointed by the minister of Science and Technology from the members of the National Advisory Council on Innovation.

President Jacob Zuma signed the Amendment to the ASSAf Act No 67 of 2001: Science and Technology Laws Amendment Act No 16 in to law on December 5 last year. Its objectives are to amend the Science and Technology Act No 16 of 2001 under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and ASSAf in providing new definitions for the election of officials to the academy council in effecting technical corrections and to rendering services for matters connected therewith.

One important report for government was the Review of HIV and Aids in 2007, which was a broad study covering social science, clinical research and nutritional studies. The report, with a full set of recommendations on how to combat and manage the HIV and AIDS pandemic more successfully, was handed over to the Department of Health.

Science & Education
The academy puts much effort into the promotion of science among learners at high-school level and among students at tertiary-education level. One of the initiatives is Quest magazine, which is distributed to high schools to spark interest in science and research. It highlights careers and current science projects, such as the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest telescope and largest scientific project, with the majority to be constructed in South Africa and the remainder in Australia. The telescope is designed to collect more data in one day than is currently on the entire worldwide web.

Another initiative was the October 2011 launch of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), which aims to contribute to the career development of young and emerging scientists, provide mentoring to learners and the youth, promote science awareness among the youth and society, as well as foster links not only between young South African scientists and scientists worldwide but also between young scientists and the business community.

SAYAS aims to provide evidence-based policy advice to government and society about issues affecting young scientists; it also collaborates with ASSAf on projects and activities involving the development of young scientists.

“The academy promotes the studying of science among young people in ensuring a bright future for science research and projects, and to assist where it can, but specifically government, in developing and adopting new policies and approaches for societal and natural resource challenges,” concludes Crewe.

The ASSAf Commentary on the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for Electricity from 2010 to 2030 recommended that the Department of Energy ensure that the next IRP for 2012 is in line with existing policies, plans and strategies, and that design, research, knowledge, human resource mobilisation and data gathering begins immediately.

The first Report on the state of Humanities in South Africa was published in August last year. It indicated a crisis in humanities, which was reflected in the decline of students who enrolled at university, as well as decreasing graduation rates and government funding for institutions of higher learning. The evolution and administration of government policy in the postapartheid period has benefitted science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to a greater extent than the humanities.

ASSAf’s recommendations included reviewing and refining government funding allocated to humanities, with substantial funding earmarked for critical areas, such as African languages, philosophy, history, as well as the creative and performing arts.

Other recommendations were a commitment to the development of a government White Paper on the humanities, which would establish a renewed emphasis on and its full integration into the national science policy, and the restructuring of funding for advanced degrees through national funding agencies to enable full-time study for top candidates.

The outcomes of the Critical Issues in School Mathematics and Science report noted the need for highly educated, well-trained teachers who develop their knowledge and stay abreast of new findings. Also, the teaching curriculum must be regularly reviewed and better communication between schools and institutions must be sought.

Scholarly Publishing
An important function of the academy is the Scholarly Publishing Programme. The proposal for the programme was submitted to the DST in November 2008 and funding was requested for the implementation of the ten recommendations developed in the Academy Report of 2006 on ‘A Strategic Approach to Research Publishing in South Africa’. The department accepted the recommendations and the academy obtained the support of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), as well as that of other stakeholders.

The programme is in line with the ten-year innovation plan for the DST, which had been adopted by Cabinet. It is conceptualised as an intervention in the country’s national system of innovation, which focuses on enhancing quality, quantity and worldwide visibility of original publications produced by researchers in the public sector. It also encourages a generation of highly competent and productive scientists and scholars.

DHET commissioned the academy to conduct a second study on a strategic approach to scholarly publishing for books.

“In addition, we hold an annual scholarly editors’ forum represented by editors of national scholarly journals, which aims to provide a platform for sharing best practice and improving the quality of editorship of national journals,” says Diab.

Further, the academy hosts an open access platform known as Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO), which is modelled on a similar system developed in Brazil. It has two main aims: indexing high-quality journals based on transparent assessment and performance monitoring and providing free worldwide electronic access to the content of the journals.

Diab explains that SciELO allows research literature published in South African scholarly journals to be placed online, where it can be downloaded for use. The journals that are approved for publication on the platform are subjected to rigorous assessment to ensure quality material. Currently there are 23 journals available on the platform.

The ASSAf scholarly publishing programme also comprises peer review panels. The periodic, grouped, quality assurance-directed peer review of South African research focuses on the quality of editorial and review processes, fitness of purpose, the positioning in the global cycle of old and new journals, financial sustainability, as well as the scope and size of issues researched. The ASSAf assessment panels each consist of six to eight experts, half of whom are not selected from the field of study concerned.

ASSAf will host the Young Scientists’ Conference from October 16 to 18 at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria, with the theme ‘Our Energy Future’. For more information, go to www.assaf.org.za.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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