Department of Science and Technology
Friday, 27 October 2017
San Francisco, USA

“Who Will Do Science in the 21st Century? An African perspective”

What do we do in South Africa to promote women in science?

South Africa has a well-developed university research base and network of public science research institutions focusing on key priority areas. The scientific discoveries and technological developments, for instance, in the areas of biotechnology, advanced materials, energy, aerospace and ICT have opened up new avenues for innovation, industrial development and productivity in these technology-based industries. Advances in biotechnology specifically, are providing headway in the development of new drugs, and the prevention and treatment of TB, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted deceased. Specific achievements in these areas have improved the stature of South Africa globally in important domains of scientific priority such as health, space industry and environmental sustenance.
Yet we have not unleashed the scientific talent of half of our people. We have a gender balance in favour of women at university but a research balance in favour of men. We have a gender balance in favour of women at university, but women lag behind in taking up science careers, lag behind in going on to undertake PhDs.

In my department, science and technology, we run a number of incentive programmes.

Our Thuthuka programme has 3 fast tracks for women academics: PhD, Post-PhD and Rating, and has been in existence since 2001.

Our Centres of Excellence have multiple objectives including building research excellence focusing on programmes and issues of national strategic importance. Regrettably out of a total of 16 centres, only one is led by a woman and we have launched proactive measures to address this.

The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) targets the development of postgraduate students and emerging researchers. In 2015 there were 157 research chairs and, while half the doctoral students were men and half were women, only one in five SARChI professors was a woman. That changed this year when 42 women professors were appointed. Now, nearly half of our 198 research professors are women.

The SARCHi 42, as we call them, is a radical intervention and will shape the future shape of the South African professoriate. The SARCHi 42 are beginning to change the statistic that only one in three published scientists is a woman, and that she is younger and less qualified than her male colleagues. Much more can be done. We need more incentives to support and recognise women in research, as without them significant change is unlikely to take place. Visible success for women scientists will ensure women play a role in key emerging sectors of research, such as energy, health, and the bio-economy.

South African universities are not all research intensive and in those that are research intensive the majority of professors focus on teaching. But this pattern is changing. Universities are undertaking more R&D than before. Barely ten years ago universities undertook 20% of South Africa's research. Now it's over 30%, and growing.

Investing in SARCHi is an investment in the future. We target two birds with one intervention - more women professors and more PhDs.

That gives you some perspective. We have made some progress in creating an enabling environment for the progression of girls and women in the science, technology and innovation sector.

What is South Africa's science and technology role in Africa?

Africa has a billion people and is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. We are working to achieve greater economic integration and diversify the range of goods and services that we export.

Faster growth is essential if we are to realise the vision of sharing our country's wealth. But it is not sufficient. We need to ensure that growth is also inclusive. The benefits of growth need to be more equitably shared.

The most important instrument to achieve this is faster job creation. In our situation, where some sectors of the economy already provide decent jobs, we need to combine mass absorption into the labour market with a determination to protect and expand access to these decent jobs.

We have to promote and grow industries that are labour absorbing, such as mining, agriculture, construction, hospitality and small businesses. We also have to grow the more advanced sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, financial services, tele-communications and businesses services.

For that we need high skills, science and innovation.  And we need African women and ensure their optimal participation in our economy and contribution to the growth of the African knowledge economy.

In the last decade sub-Saharan Africa has increased its investment in scientific research. A 2014 World Bank report revealed a growth in the quality and quantity of sub-Saharan African research (the report excludes South Africa). Over the last decade sub-Saharan Africa's share of global research publications has increased from 0.44% to 0.72% (equal to South Africa's share). Nearly half of this research has been in health sciences and this is welcome in the face of Africa's health challenges.

The challenge for Africa is to ensure that the gender imbalance in the practice of science, technology and innovation activities is addressed. We don't underestimate the importance of science, technology, and innovation for socio-economic development in both the developed and developing world. The involvement of women in STI activities is critical in contributing to the development of nations.

In closing, Africa’s drive for innovation will change the world beyond Africa, because out of it will come a new way of thinking about the world, about health, and about technology. Africa’s socio-economic evolution will change conventional assumptions about each and every compartment of human activity.

In other words, it is my belief that Africa’s capacity for innovation will shape the future of not only Africans but Asians, Americans and Europeans as well.

The most important new innovation driver is highly skilled human capital. We all compete in a global market for scientists and entrepreneurs.

We are determined to encourage women scientists to work in Africa. But there must be work for them in frontier science. In South Africa we tried "to pick winners" with an electric car and a small-scale nuclear reactor project. We then turned to astronomy and "picked a winner" in radio astronomy where we had a comparative advantage in knowledge and geography.

Thanks in no small measure to the support of the European Union, and its African European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP), South Africa was selected in 2012 to co-host the global Square Kilometre Array or SKA global radio telescope project.  The SKA has reversed the loss of skilled scientists, but is also critical to achieving our objective of making science and technology work for Africa.  

Speaking of astronomy, a recent Nature report has quantified gender bias in astronomy using a machine-learning algorithm. Its calculation demonstrated that papers with women first-authors have citation rates pushed down by 10%. We should be honest with ourselves – gender bias in research remains a very real and unfortunate reality, which must be eliminated.

A luta continua – the struggle continues – the battle cry of the anti-apartheid resistance movements and freedom fighters in Southern Africa most certainly still applies.