Department of Science and Technology

Thursday, 14 September 2017


Central University of Technology, Bloemfontein


Good evening, I'd like to begin by congratulating the researchers whose work has been affirmed and recognised this evening.


I would especially like to congratulate Professor O’Connell on his lifetime-achievement award.


I believe that broadening our knowledge base will only be achieved by collective efforts from all science sectors but most importantly by government, and industry, and higher education institutions working together.


We should also recognise that a significant improvement of the training of scientists, and the institutional environment for knowledge generation, is necessary in collaboration with international partners.


Indeed, increasing the number of well-trained PhDs in South Africa is one of South Africa’s most critical challenges.


I talk about well-trained PhDs intentionally, and avoid talking about numbers. Whereas it would look good for South Africa to produce many PhDs, it would even be better if the PhD graduates could contribute to innovation, through which the production and dissemination of knowledge leads to economic benefits and enriches all fields of human endeavour.


Awards ceremonies like this are indispensable in ensuring that the national system of innovation becomes more focused on long-range objectives, including urgently confronting South Africa’s failure to commercialise the results of scientific research.


I emphasise innovation, but not innovation for its own sake. South Africa’s prospects for improved competitiveness and economic growth rely, to a degree, on science and technology.


The government’s broad developmental mandate can ultimately be achieved only if South Africa takes further steps on the road to becoming a learning society. Transformation in this direction will necessarily shift the proportion of national income derived from knowledge-based industries, the percentage of the workforce employed in knowledge-based jobs and the ratio of firms using technology to innovate.


The impact of higher education on the intellectual base and culture of our young democracy is difficult to measure and therefore perhaps not often enough or sufficiently recognised and valued. What remains enduring - here and elsewhere in the world - is that the development and maintenance of intellectual capital depends fundamentally on a vibrant research culture that must be sustained by a society’s higher education institutions.


While I know that the higher education research system is part of a broader national science, technology and innovation system, it is higher education institutions that must give effect to the interlocking of scholarly endeavour and new knowledge production.


Our universities are no longer ivory towers remote from reality.


There has been a distinct move away from basic and fundamental research towards strategic, applied and product-related research. Instead of this being considered as a system weakness, the relative strength of each form of research combines to illustrate the capacity of the higher education system.


Increasingly our system requires that we look at the output of our research, traditionally measured through publications and patents. A statistical analysis is the start. But it's only the start. It's much more complex to analyse the social and economic impact of research. I welcome the trend towards looking at the impact of research.


Recent NRF research that compares the impact of our centres of excellence and our SARCHi programme puts this statement into perspective. The CoEs are more focussed on impact than the SARCHi programme. The NRF research reports exceptional CoE performance and recommends better long-term support. They're engaged in national priority areas and they focus on use-inspired basic research. In contrast, the SARCHi programme stimulates new thinking, new directions and new collaborations, and changes behaviour and approaches to research. Yet make no mistake. We value the less tangible strategic benefits that emerge from SARCHi research.


At the same time, the public higher education system has been restructured and the success of its transformation will in large part be gauged by the extent to which universities succeed in consolidating a differentiated institutional landscape, where the impact and contribution to research, knowledge production and intellectual capital development needs to be greater than the sum of its individual parts.


In this regard, it is important that we build a public environment supportive of its higher education institutions - an affirming culture that succeeds in bringing new talent into our universities because we recognise that higher education must, in addition to its responsiveness to urgent national, regional and global priorities, also regenerate its own intellectual capital.


The NRF, through the researcher awards, builds knowledge and economic capacity for sustainable development.


I would like to thank Dr Qhobela and his team for taking the NRF forward.