Science and technology

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South Africa has a respected and world-class science and technology community that, over many decades, has pioneered globally significant and successful new ideas, techniques and technologies.

These include the complex techniques to produce fuels and useful chemicals from raw coal, pioneering steel production, the extreme engineering and chemistry required to extract minerals from increasingly miserly reefs of the deepest mines in the world, medical expertise that not only saw the country pioneering the world’s first heart transplant, but makes South Africa-trained doctors in demand – and working – all over the world, and in recent years, a thriving space science industry.

The government body responsible for the sector is the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Its budget over the Medium Term Expenditure Framework is R16.6-billion, of which R4.96-billion has been allocated to the 2012/13 financial year.

Of this smaller amount, R2.6-billion or 53% is allocated to public entities (Africa Institute of South Africa R33-million, the Academy of Science for South Africa R13-million, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research R737-million, the Human Sciences Research Council R214-million, the National Research Foundation R1.07-million, National Space Agency R95-million and TIA R455 million).

Of the remainder R1.94-billion is allocated to the DST-directed projects (implemented by institutions that perform research and development) and R397-million to the running costs of the department.

The allocations to DST public entities rise from R2.6-billion to R2.9-billion between 2012/13 and 2014/15 at an annual average growth rate of 5%.

Research and development

South Africa’s Research and Development Strategy, launched in 2002, aims to enhance the National System of Innovation, a cluster of interacting public and private organisations focused on nurturing and developing science and technology in South Africa, with the specific aim of accelerating economic growth.

A survey released in October 2010 by the Human Sciences Research Council reveals that the gross domestic expenditure on research and development (R&D) was R21-billion, a nominal increase of R2.4-billion from the R18.6-billion recorded for 2007/08. These are the latest available figures.

The 2008/09 expenditure represents a 12.9% nominal increase, although it fell a little behind the increase in the nominal GDP of 13.2% over the corresponding period. As a consequence, R&D expenditure, expressed as a percentage of GDP, dropped slightly from 0.93% in 2007/08 to 0.92% in 2008/09.

The DST constantly develops strategies to ensure South Africa in new areas of knowledge and technology. Strategies to develop nanotechnology, astronomy indigenous knowledge, and intellectual property, have been developed, derived from publicly funded research.

Biotechnology

South Africa’s National Biotechnology Strategy (NBS) was launched in 2001 to stimulate the growth of a local biotech industry, following similar successful programmes in other developing countries, such as Cuba, Brazil and China.

Its initiatives include biotechnology regional innovation centres (Brics), created to act as instruments for the implementation of the NBS. The country’s four Brics are:

The Brics focus on a number of different biotech disciplines, including human and animal health, biopharmaceuticals, industrial bioprocessing, mining biotechnology, bioinformatics and plant biotechnology.

One of the challenges facing the South African biotechnology sector is the public’s suspicion and lack of understanding and knowledge of the technology’s benefits. For this reason the NBS initiated the Public Understanding of Biotechnology programme, which provides South Africans with information to participate meaningfully in debates about biotechnology, and to make informed decisions.

Nanotechnology

South Africa’s National Nanotechnology Strategy, launched in April 2006, focuses on the essential building blocks of nanoscience: synthesis, characterisation and fabrication. The strategy aims to increase the number of nanotechnology characterisation centres in South Africa, with an investment of R170-million over three years – R15-million in 2005/06, R30-million in 2006/2007, and R120-million in 2007/2008.

Known as “the technology of the very small” – about 1/80 000 of the diameter of a human hair – nanotechnology is made up of a wide range of technologies, techniques and multidisciplinary research efforts for application in a range of cross-cutting industries and activities. These include aerospace, manufacturing and automotive industries; energy conversion, storage and distribution; the hydrogen economy; chemicals; electronics and information processing; as well as biotechnology and medicines.

South African industry and researchers have been key players in nanotechnology and the practical application of nanoscience for a number of years. One example is Sasol’s chemical processing by catalysis.

The strategy recognises that it is essential for South African scientists to develop their ability to derive more benefits from new generations of nanotechnology-based products emerging in the world today. It aims to position the country as a global player in this emerging discipline, and seeks to strengthen the integrated development focus of the government.

The strategy’s main objectives are to:

  • support long-term nanoscience research that will lead to a fundamental understanding of the design, synthesis, characterisation, modelling and fabrication of nanomaterial
  • support the creation of new and novel devices for application in various areas
  • develop the required HR and supporting infrastructure
  • stimulate new developments in technology missions such, as material for advanced manufacturing, nanobiomaterial for biotechnology, precious metal-based nanoparticles for resource-based industries, and advanced material for information and communications technologies

Space science

National Space Agency

The National Space Agency (Sansa) was formed in December 2009 by the National Space Agency Act of 2008 (PDF).

It’s described as the country’s government body for the promotion and use of space. It also fosters cooperation in space-related activities and research in space science, seeks to advance scientific engineering through human capital, and supports the creation of an environment conducive to the industrial development of space technologies within the framework of the national government.

It became operational in April 2011.

Sansa’s focus areas are:

  • Earth observation
  • Space engineering
  • Space operations
  • Space science
  • Human capital development
  • Public engagement

Square Kilometre Array

In mid-2012 South Africa was named one of the two co-hosts of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA0, sharing the project with Australia.

The SKA will be the world’s largest radio telescope when complete. The Southern African portion will be centred in the Karoo in an area that is protected by law from developments that could cause radio interference.

South Africa will host the greater part – about 70% – of the instrument, while the remainder will be built in Australia.

The SKA will have five key research areas:

  • Investigating galaxy evolution, cosmology and dark energy
  • Strong-field tests of gravity using pulsars and black holes
  • Investigating the origin and evolution of cosmic magnetism
  • The cradle of life searching for life and planets
  • Probing the dark ages – the first black holes and stars