South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor launched three new chairs within the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) as part of the South Africa and United Kingdom (UK) bilateral research chair initiative.
Pandor said that the establishment of the three new chairs followed the SARChI’s success in playing an important role in retaining talent at home and said they wanted to expand this initiative further afield, particularly as “international cooperation has consistently been an important aspect of our various national research and innovation programmes and strategies”.
The three new bilateral chairs would be chaired by Dr Stephen Devereux, Research Chair in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape; Professor Michael John Roberts, Research Chair Food Security at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University; and Professor Lawrence Hamilton, Research Chair in Political Theory at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Pandor said the three new chairs arose out of a desire to expand the SARChI model further afield as it had proven itself to be “one of the best ways to avoid a brain drain to developed countries”.
SARChI was established by the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation ten years ago as a vehicle through which much needed talent in the sciences could be retained. Pandor noted that it first started with 21 chairs, and now was a R404-million a year programme with 198 chairs.
Each research chair she noted, was able to supervise “three times the number of honours, masters and doctoral students supervised by other established researchers holding research grants”, because each research chair had more than five times the number of postdoctoral fellows than other established researchers.
SARChI focuses on established scientists who are undertaking frontier research and strengthen the country’s human development pipeline “by training the next generation of researchers”.
Pandor said SARChI, supported by both public and private funds, “is a huge opportunity for our country and our continent. It nurtures research talent. This is vital for our future prosperity. It encourages the best scientists to work in South Africa. It encourages the best to stay at home”.
“The best scientists have a global choice of where to work. It’s long been like this, a movement out of Africa to Europe and America, and universities have begun as one way of mitigating the effects of or to benefit from global competition by offering joint appointments”.
Pandor said that the department decided to expand SARCHi through a country bilateral programme, starting first with Switzerland in the global environmental health sector in 2015, and now with the UK in food security and political science, and in the future with Germany in nano science and advanced materials.
Between 2006 and 2014, SARChI saw an investment of R1.5-billion and was able to leverage an additional R3-billion from foreign sources, government departments, and private and industry funders.
Pandor said she anticipated that the three new chairs would “contribute to South Africa’s growing importance as a centre of science and innovation excellence, best illustrated by the 2012 decision for SA to co-host the Square Kilometre Array giant telescope.