The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation visits DSI project sites in KwaZulu-Natal

On 24 and 25 January 2023, Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation conducted oversight visits to several sites in KwaZulu-Natal where the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) funds programmes.  

The committee, led by Chairperson Nompumelelo Mkhatshwa and accompanied by senior managers of the DSI and Department of Higher Education and Training, visited several research facilities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's Biorefinery Industry Development Facility to learn more about how DSI-funded initiatives work.  

Following the walkabout at the Biorefinery Industry Development Facility, which is working to use the methods developed to ascertain the causes or sources of problems in manufacturing, Ms Mkhatshwa noted that there are not enough women in science, and that institutions like these need more women to take engineering and science courses so that South Africa can grow its science expertise.

Professors at UKZN made presentations on the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), the Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) and the Indigenous Knowledge Bioprospecting and Product Development Platform, and committee members engaged with management on the presentations.

Ms Mkhatshwa said she was pleased to be at UKZN to see how the DSI was using government funding and to make sure it could account for expenditure.  She added that the Department's work needed to have a direct impact on the citizens of this country, or it would be meaningless.

"I imagine a day when a young black person from rural KwaZulu-Natal can be, for example, an astronaut who goes to the moon.  As the committee, we look forward to the day when young people from all backgrounds can take the lead in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, allowing South Africa to become a global leader in this field," said Ms Mkhatshwa.

UKZN Vice-Chancellor Prof. Nana Poku echoed this sentiment, saying that the future of science cannot be addressed fully unless universities go to schools to motivate, enthuse, and give learners a sense of purpose to engage with science.


Highlighting genomic surveillance at KRISP


According to Prof. Tulio de Oliveira, the director of KRISP, the platform aims to put science on the global stage through important interventions like genomic surveillance, which can greatly assist South Africa in investigating gender-based violence cases by providing DNA.

Prof De Oliveira said that African science should take centre stage in the global context, and Africa's scientists can assist the rest of the world in preparing for the next pandemic. "African and other low and middle-income countries need the opportunity to lead global consortiums, host large grants and events, and guide the global scientific agenda.


Advancing space-related research through ASReG


The ASReG, which is located within UKZN's School of Engineering, runs flagship programmes such as the Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Programme, which is a rocket training programme that was started in the context of the government's prioritisation of skills and resource development in space-related research.  

"We need to give hope to the young people of this country, and this rocket technology can help us do that," said Prof. Michael Brooks, co-founder of the ASReG.

As ASReG is the only dedicated sounding rocket propulsion research group in South Africa, it generates substantial human capital in mechanical and aerospace engineering research.  In 2021, it launched the Phoenix-1B Mk II-R rocket, which set a new African altitude record of 17.9 km.  

Prof. Brooks also spoke about the ASReg's talent pipeline programme, which acts as a bridge from the undergraduate to the postgraduate level by exposing students' talents to aerospace engineering and providing them with financial assistance.  Last year, the programme reached approximately 1 600 schools in rural KZN and surrounding communities.


Building indigenous knowledge systems

Representatives from the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Task Team, comprised of leaders from traditional health organisations and traditional healers, shared their experiences working with traditional medicines and how they collaborate with the university using their knowledge and skills.

Traditional healer Thulani Shangase, a member of the steering committee, said that traditional healers should be included in nation-building activities, and that the committee would advocate for the recognition and integration of indigenous knowledge into the country's landscape.

Mayashree Chinsamy, the Research Manager for the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in IKS at UKZN, said that the centre uses a ground-up approach in terms of science, research, and community engagement, which influence the centre's areas of focus.

For example, she said, most people associate IKS with traditional medicine as it is usually the first thing that comes to mind.  "We are talking about community-based knowledge systems, or culturally and ecologically specific knowledge", she said.

"If you go into a certain space and look at the cultural communities there, you will notice that they have devised a certain knowledge system from different disciplines coming together to live and survive.  People have been putting knowledge on the ground for a long time, whether it is to ensure food and nutrition security or to ensure public health and wellbeing. They are the scientists on the ground," added Chinsamy.

Prof. Nceba Gqaleni, a Fractional Research Professor at UKZN, said that boosting traditional medicine can provide a solution to some of the societal problems that Western medicine cannot cure.


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