Building effective and mutually beneficial partnerships, both locally and internationally, is a priority of South Africa's national strategy for science, technology and innovation.



Speaking at the opening of the EuroScience Open Forum 2020 (ESOF 2020), Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), said South Africa had embraced the principle that science knows no borders.


Dr Mjwara, who was delivering a virtual address on behalf of the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, said that no one country had all the resources, including human and financial resources, that were needed to tackle global issues.


"Given the myriad of societal challenges of our time – including climate change, energy and food security, and health – it is imperative that international science cooperation is enhanced," the Director-General said.


Having being delayed by two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ESOF 2020 was held as a combination online and real-life event in Trieste, Italy from 2 to 6 September. Italy bore the brunt of the pandemic in Europe, losing thousands of lives to COVID-19.


The four-day science extravaganza was one of the first events to take place since the country lifted its hard lockdown. Under the new hybrid format, a series of meetings were held between the scientific community and policy makers on the implications of the novel coronavirus for public health, economics and communication.


Mayor Roberto Dipiazza said the City of Trieste was "one of the most convinced supporters of the ESOF 2020 event, which brings Trieste to the centre of international scientific debate at a time when the scientific world is more committed than ever in the battle against COVID-19".


Dr Mjwara said the timing of ESOF 2020 was opportune, as it provided a platform for much-needed discussion on the critical role of science in responding to pandemics. He added that South Africa had a strong track record of collaboration with Europe on science, technology and innovation, and that this had been further enhanced by efforts to combat COVID-19.


The Director-General said that global solidarity was needed more than ever before, especially to deal with growing inequalities in access to healthcare. He called on multinational companies to partner with governments to ensure that less well-resourced countries and communities were not left behind.


The world was more fragile than we had thought, he said, and partnerships were needed to optimise the opportunities presented by the green economy and the fourth industrial revolution.


"Meetings such as ESOF provide an important platform for exchanging ideas and best practices, for networking with international partners on areas of scientific enterprise, and for enhancing science diplomacy," he said, adding that it was in this spirit that South Africa would be hosting the World Science Forum 2021 in Cape Town under the theme of "science for social justice".


Also speaking at the opening of the event, EuroScience President Michael Matlosz said that ESOF 2020 offered an ideal opportunity for constructive and inclusive dialogue aimed at collectively addressing the current global crisis.


These sentiments were echoed by a number of other delegates. Fabiola Gianotti, the first woman Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), said that science was more than knowledge. "It is a value system, and can play a key role in helping humanity overcome the societal and planetary challenges we face."


Stefano Fantoni, the ESOF 2020 Champion, said: "We must not be afraid of knowledge, especially in times of crisis, because it is precisely in these moments that we grasp the profound value of an approach to reality based on trust in the ability of human beings to investigate and know the world."


The need for a new research culture was another recurrent theme of conversations at the event. Gaetano Manfredi, a professor of engineering who previously served as Italy's Minister of University and Research, said that COVID-19 had highlighted the importance of scientific awareness among citizens.


A technological society evolves rapidly, Manfredi said, and it was essential for citizens to know not only how to use modern technologies, but also to understand their potential. "Having citizens who are passionate about the progress of science and who appreciate the social role of research helps countries to be more competitive internationally."


ESOF 2020 was the ninth edition of the biennial forum, which was established in 2004 by the non-profit association EuroScience. The 10th edition, ESOF 2022, will be hosted by Leiden, Netherlands.