Research chairs to grow SA’s innovation competitiveness

10 March 2014

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe on Friday announced the appointment of 54 new research chairs under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (Sarchi), which aims to grow South Africa’s research and innovation competitiveness by attracting and developing excellence at the country’s universities.

Established in 2006 by the Department of Science and Technology, Sarchi enables universities to produce high-quality postgraduate students and research and innovation outputs. The initiative is driven by internationally well-established researchers, who train and mentor postgraduates to become the next generation of research and development leaders.

According to the department, the appointment of 54 new research chairs brings the current total number of awarded research chairs to 157, representing a cumulative investment of just under R1-billion. Sarchi research chairs are funded for up to 15 years at R2.5-million and R1.5-million per annum for tier 1 and tier 2 research chairs respectively, with inflation-related increases over the funding period.

“The current total of 150 research chairs makes this an investment of more than R400-million per annum, and probably South Africa’s biggest single high-end skills development investment over a 15-year period,” the department said in a statement last week.

“Sarchi has also leveraged close to 200% of the government’s investment in the initiative from other sources,” the department noted, adding that the initiative had had “moderate but encouraging” success in attracting established researchers from developed countries to South Africa.

The investment has also translated into the creation of about a thousand new jobs within the country’s National System of Innovation (NSI), in part by providing a much-needed stepping stone for associate researchers and postdoctoral students.

Announcing the new chairs in Pretoria on Friday, Motlanthe said he was confident that they would improve South Africa’s international research and innovation competitiveness, while responding to the socio-economic challenges facing the country.

“The imperative for the research chairs to derive research-driven solutions that ultimately contribute to a better life for all South Africans still remains,” Motlanthe said, adding that the initiative’s impact on the county’s higher education system was being felt “at individual, institutional and system levels”.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom, also speaking during Friday’s announcement, said that Sarchi had already notched up successes, citing the example of work done by the initiative’s Research Chair in Drug Discovery, hosted by the University of Cape Town under the leadership of Professor Kelly Chibale.

Hanekom said Chibale’s team, in collaboration with the Medicines for Malaria Venture based in Switzerland, had discovered a compound “that not only has the potential to become part of a single-dose cure for all strains of malaria, but might also be able to block transmission of the parasite from person to person.

“The team has also developed and identified a candidate suitable for pre-clinical development. The compound will be the first-ever clinical candidate researched on African soil as part of a modern pharmaceutical drug discovery programme.”

According to the department, the initiative includes five research chairs relevant to South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array project: in radio astronomy techniques and technologies (Rhodes University); electromagnetic systems and Electromagnetic interference mitigation (Stellenbosch University); extragalactic multi-wavelength astronomy (University of Cape Town); astronomy and astrophysics (University of the Western Cape); and radio astronomy (University of the Witwatersrand).

SAinfo reporter