The UK wants to build long-term relationships with South Africa in the fields of science, technology and engineering, and has assigned funds to support this desire. “The UK is interested in investing in cooperation with South Africa,” reports British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) chief scientific adviser Professor Robin Grimes. “We’ve recently announced the creation of our Newton Fund to finance scientific cooperation with selected countries; £4-million (more than R70-million) a year for the next five years, [giving a total of £20-million or R350-million], has been allocated just for cooperation with South Africa, although there is hope that some of the South Africa funding will be used for projects in third countries in Africa.”
The fund is intended to help finance partnerships. For its part, South Africa will put up a very similar, although perhaps slightly less, amount, demonstrating that the programme is truly a partnership.
The Newton Fund will not encompass all UK – South Africa scientific, technological and engineering cooperation. There will be other programmes as well. “One other thing I should emphasise is the SKA (Square Kilometre Array – the international project to build the world’s biggest radio telescope array in South Africa and Australia),” he highlights. “The UK is a big proponent of, and a big contributor to, the SKA – in excess of £100-million (about R1.75-billion). We want to be right at the heart of this project. We want to make this relationship work.”
There will also be many major spin-off activities from the SKA, creating further opportunities for bilateral as well as multilateral cooperation. One such area will be big data – its collection, processing and analysis.
Another area with considerable potential for bilateral cooperation is medicine. “There is a lot of opportunity for South African and British medical staff in both countries. Both countries recognise each other’s medical qualifications. This is not universal,” he points out. “More generally, both countries use the same engineering standards, which also helps a lot in terms of cooperation.”
London is also interested in cooperation in capacity building, including partnering South African and British academics, exchanging PhD students and industry-science cooperation. Further, there is room for greater cooperation in science policy, public education and public engagement – “to present science and engineering in a way people can understand”.
The UK has an international Science and Innovation Network with some 90 staff in 28 countries, spread among 47 cities. There are three science and innovation officers assigned to South Africa – “three in one country is rather unusual,” notes Grimes. They are spilt between Pretoria and Cape Town. Currently, the only other Science and Innovation Network post in sub-Saharan Africa is in Abuja, Nigeria. “But we intend to increase our presence in Africa.”
The purpose of this network, which is jointly funded by the FCO and the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is to develop strategic science and innovation relationships, to make use of science and innovation investments and discoveries outside the UK to the benefit of both the host country and Britain. “This is a relationship that works for both our countries,” he affirms. “It is important. It is a partnership. It will really help both of us. It’s really a question of getting the balance right.”
Grimes recently visited South Africa. While here, he met with decision-makers, including the Minister of Science and Technology and officials from the Department of Science and Technology and from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. He also met with a number of South African university vice-chancellors. “Their quality is really impressive,” he observed. In addition, he had talks with people from South African industry and academia.
Grimes is also a physicist at Imperial College, London, and his personal area of interest and expertise is computer simulation, usually at the atomic scale and usually on energy materials. He is also a chartered engineer. While in South Africa, he also gave three lectures, one of which was at the 2014 South African Institute of Physics conference.