Science knows no borders and, in these times, when our world more than ever before needs global friendships and solidarity, science diplomacy can play a valuable role. This was said by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, at the opening of the International Conference on Research Infrastructure (ICRI) 2016 this morning,03 October 2016.
Minister Pandor welcomed over 500 delegates from more than 60 countries to ICRI, held in Africa for the first time. The European Commission and the Department of Science and Technology are co-hosting the conference.
Research infrastructure plays an increasingly important role in advancing knowledge and technology, and is key in bringing together a wide diversity of stakeholders to look for solutions to problems faced by society.
The hosting of the three-day conference, an initiative of the European Commission, gives South Africa an opportunity to demonstrate its research capability and showcase itself as a natural host for some of the world's most significant research infrastructure, such as the Centre for High Performance Computing and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
The event also marks 20 years of successful science, technology and innovation collaboration between the Department of Science and Technology and the European Union (EU), which Minister Pandor said was a perfect example of how South Africa and the EU had joined forces over the years to advance global cooperation in science and technology.
The Minister said that large-scale facilities, such as the SKA, were not only hugely expensive to build and maintain, but required a sharing of global experience and expertise. For this reason, South Africa looked forward to the conference's recommendation on best practice models for these "sometimes complicated" partnerships, especially towards ensuring the long-term sustainability of such infrastructure.
With "open science" and "open innovation" currently science policy buzzwords, the Minister called on the delegates to look beyond the rhetoric of making scientific research and data accessible to all levels of society.
The EC Director-General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, said big data presented the world with numerous challenges, such as how to store and disseminate the data generated by large-scale projects, sustainable funding, and how research infrastructure could lead to development and innovation across the world.
"We at the European Commission have decided to prepare an action plan to guide us towards the long-term sustainability of research infrastructures," said Mr Smits, calling on the scientific community to contribute to this plan.
Also addressing the event, Kevin Govender, the first South African to be awarded the prestigious Edinburgh Medal (for astronomy development), emphasised the need for people to use research infrastructure, as without people, the infrastructure was meaningless.
"Our joint responsibility is to enable people to participate. If there is a philosophical understanding of knowledge generation rather than just a practical one, we can unite people around the world," said Mr Govender.
The SKA South Africa's Dr Rob Adam said that research infrastructures were core enablers of competitive research, development and innovation. He said investment in research infrastructure boosted technical progress, developed human capital and led to improved quality of life.