Department of Science and Technology

Monday, 29 May 2017                  

11:45

Amsterdam

It’s a great pleasure and a greater honour to be here.

The discussion of ethics in research, and increased attention to rules of intellectual  integrity, may appear to some to be a pre-occupation Africa would not have an interest in. The reasons for such a view arise from the low levels of scientific research and innovation in Africa and the belief that science technology and innovation are distant global activities with rare opportunities for impactful African contributions.

The African experience of research and innovation has been largely as the object of scrutiny or investigation, or the beneficiary of benevolent solutions developed outside Africa, or at best as African diaspora participant in research endeavours outside Africa. This in itself is a sterling example of poor ethical commitment, because surely the very essence of science is its ability to uplift and transform the human condition leading to fundamental socio-economic change.

You will be aware through these preliminary remarks that, while I fully acknowledge the vital necessity of established ethical norms in the science academy, I believe full attention to Africa and the developing world that is still to achieve research and innovation is as urgently important. That matters that may be defined by some as political, rather than scientific or purely intellectual, require attention if we are to arrive at developing guiding universal norms that will inform research ethics globally.

The debates that will be held during this conference will most certainly give attention to recent developments in research practice globally. For Africa some of these hold great promise for research capacity development, while others pose the danger of increased dislocation from global research collaboration.

The challenge of ensuring Africa plays a full role in research and innovation and develops adequately skilled researchers and research institutions, forms a central part of the R&D strategies adopted and overseen by the department of science  and technology.

This brings me to the Singapore statement (2010), which some South African institutions have endorsed. Most of the Statement's responsibilities are placed on researchers, but there is a role for institutions and governments to play in helping to negotiate 'conflicts of interest' by creating a climate in which professional research integrity is expected.

'Conflicts of interest' can take many forms, but the role of funding in science research is as problematic as the role of funding in politics - if less easily understood. Sometimes funding comes without strings attached. Other times strings are hidden, buried, and not easily seen by the naked eye. I'm thinking of the role of those billionaires around the world in pursuing their pet science and technology projects through free market or conservative think-tanks. It is easy for tobacco and energy corporates to pursue their agendas (against climate change and renewable energy) while funding legitimate scientific research. They support a network of independent-looking organisations that can produce plausible arguments in defence of their positions. 

Once the arguments have been developed, projecting them is easy. Most of the mainstream media are owned by billionaires, who are happy to promote the work of the people they fund. 

That's why publicly owned media is so critical in thwarting this form of corporate capture. 

In South Africa medical research is not surprisingly in the vanguard of initiatives taken to ensure research integrity. In fact, South Africa runs the longest running National Institutes of Health funded training programme for research ethics - at Masters level - in Africa. Its called SARETI (South African Research Ethics Training Initiative) - and it's the flagship African Master's programme from the NIH. 

Our National Health Research Ethics Council has an oversight role and tackles complaints or appeals. Our National Research Foundation is busy preparing a similar oversight role for other research fields. 

But medical researchers have taken further steps.

RHInnO Ethics is the most widely used software for ethics review in Africa now. It is affordable, created for low-bandwidth and accepted in 12 countries / 39 committees. This means, that it has the potential to become a 'de facto' pan-African platform. If this were to happen, it would create compatibility and comparative performance management across sub-Saharan Africa, a feature which would really help to generate more clinical research being done in Africa. Currently, with about 10% of the world population, Africa attracts 'only' 1% of global clinical trials. Getting more of the global clinical trials funding will be a major asset to us. And creating one pan-African platform will definitely be a key success factor in making this happen.

RHInnO Ethics is now developing direct links to medicine regulation - and clinical trial software approved by US Dept Health and Human Sciences. This means it can now also become a major link in accelerating medicine approval across the continent, a notoriously complex issue. So, Africa has, in principle, what it takes to create its own continental software platform for ethics review, and in the near future to improve and accelerate medicine regulation.

There are other initiatives - like COHRED's (Council on Health Research for Development) Research Fairness Initiative - that help shape and monitor international collaborative research and innovation involving low- and middle-income countries. This conference's Montreal Statement on cross-boundary research collaboration (2013) is central to defining best practice and informs our international science, technology and innovation partnerships. 

South Africa has worked actively to ensure that the vital contribution of science, technology and innovation to eradicate poverty, and reinforce international solidarity, was recognised in the United Nations’ formulation of the new Sustainable Development Goals. 

We also continue to contribute strategically to defending our and Africa’s interests in international climate change negotiations. Climate change is a prime example of a policy domain dependent on sound scientific advice for decision-making and the renowned expertise of South African of our climate and other scientists will be valuable resources for our negotiators.  

South Africa puts its science diplomacy to work in support of multilateralism. In this regard there are two international partnerships - DG Robert-Jan Smits knows them well - that are driving forces for Africa's future growth. 

The first is the decadal €1.4 billion European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP). Over the past few years the ECDTP has contributed immensely to accelerating the development of new interventions to fight HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis and to enhancing Africa’s research capacities in relation to these diseases.

The second international partnership that is driving Africa's future growth is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA Organisation will invest approximately €650 million for Phase 1 construction costs between 2018 and 2023. The European Union has allocated funding of €5 million through its Horizon 2020 programme to support the detailed design of the infrastructure required at the two SKA co-host sites – the Murchison region of Western Australia and the Karoo region of South Africa.