South Africa teams up with Swiss for research

4 June 2015

A joint research chair will focus on mitigating environmental health risks in South Africa, particularly in the communities that are most vulnerable to the effects of environmental exposure. It will focus on major drivers of environmental health, such as chemical and biological pollution and climate change.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor launched the chair, the first bilateral research chair at the University of Cape Town, on 3 June, with Dr Mauro Dell’Ambrogio, Switzerland’s state secretary for education and research, and Swiss ambassador to South Africa, Christian Meuwly. It is the first time another country has been involved in funding a chair under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), and it is expected to provide a model for other countries to participate in the Department of Science and Technology’s flagship programme.

The five-year Swiss-South Africa Global Environmental Health Research Chair will incorporate epidemiological, clinical, molecular-biological and social science approaches. Emphasis will be placed on putting the research findings to use through working with communities.

Headed by Prof Mohamed Aqiel Dalvie of the University of Cape Town, work will include a focus on major drivers of environmental health, such as exposure to chemical and biological pollution and climate change, and the interactions between them. Human rights and environmental justice issues will also be addressed.

The research chair will be supported and managed by South Africa’s National Research Foundation, the University of Basel, and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute.

The two Swiss institutes will fund the first year of the chair, to a value of R1.3- million. The remaining four years will be covered through funding arrangements with the two institutes and the Swiss School of Public Health. South Africa will contribute R1.5-million a year for the five-year duration of the research chair.

Pandor said the SARChI project began with 21chairs in 2006 and had grown to 150 occupied chairs in diverse disciplines across the natural sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences. “It’s now a R470-million-a-year strategic intervention.”

She saw collaborative partnerships such as South Africa’s co-operation with Switzerland leading to improved knowledge production and human capital development in Africa, she said.

The partnership with the Swiss had yielded many successes. “The joint research programme has encouraged direct institutional links and collaborations between our respective higher education and research institutions. It has also supported the active participation of both countries in the European Union Framework programmes.”

“From the Swiss Confederation’s point of view, we are very pleased about this positive development in the bilateral science and technology co-operation between our two countries,” said Dell’Ambrogio. “There have been remarkable achievements since the signing of the science and technology agreement in 2007, and the Swiss South Africa Environmental Public Health Research Chair is the latest highlight.”

This was one of the first of several such international collaborations for the SARChI chairs, said Dr Gansen Pillay, the deputy chief executive of the NRF.

“This co-operation will go a long way in strengthening research leadership and capacity for both Switzerland and South Africa, and the initiative will undoubtedly escalate the number of world-class research projects undertaken by both countries, stimulate strategic research, create career pathways for high quality young and mid-career researchers, and enhance the training of a qualified workforce which will help toward bettering the lives of South Africans.”

The joint committee meeting provided an opportunity for the two countries to review and plan the development of the Swiss South African Joint Research Programme. Both countries said they were satisfied with the progress made in advancing the objectives of the bilateral co-operation.

Signed in 2008, the programme has resulted in support for 41 projects to date, and the production of a number of PhDs, as well as useful postdoctoral research. It is implemented through various bilateral instruments that include not only joint research projects, but also science-to-market initiatives, faculty and student exchanges, and scientific workshops.

Source: Department of Science and Technology