Programme Director;

Prof. Tyrone Pretorius, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape;

Researchers and students;

Distinguished guests;

Ladies and gentlemen:

 

I am honoured to have been invited to open the 5th South African Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Summer School.  I am always fascinated with fields of knowledge whose aim is the development of humankind, and it warms my heart to know that our students at master's and PhD level are at the centre of this noble initiative.

 

Given the potentially massive returns of nanoscience and nanotechnology for the development of this country and its people, government did not hesitate to make R1 million available to fund the 5th Summer School.

 

The fact that this is the fifth edition of the Summer School tells us that we have come a long way as a country in the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology.  As you know, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) introduced the Nano Schools Programme in 2009.  The programme was aimed at narrowing the knowledge gap in areas of importance in the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology in South Africa, and formed one of many platforms for the implementation of the 2005 National Nanotechnology Strategy.

 

The Nano Schools are designed to equip our master's and PhD students with the necessary knowledge and skills for conducting research in nanoscience and nanotechnology, as a way of preparing them to enter the field.  This intervention complements existing human capital development programmes in nanotechnology, most of which are pitched at research level.

 

The prefix "nano" means one thousand millionth.  And indeed, we made small beginnings in order to realise great achievements in this intriguing field of science.  Guided by the 2002 National Research and Development Strategy, government took the bold step of supporting nanoscience initiatives in the country.  This led to the formation of the South African Nanotechnology Initiative, which in turn played a pivotal role in the development of the South African National Nanotechnology Strategy in 2005.

 

I would like to share with you our strides in human capital development in this field.  A recent study on nanotechnology development in South Africa was recently conducted on behalf of the DSI by Greenhouse Consultants.  On the human capital side, the study found that there are 465 researchers at professor and associate professor level currently active in nanotechnology research in the country.  In addition, there are 640 research and technical staff and 359 postgraduate students at master's and doctoral level.

 

I have to say that I tend to be a bit sceptical when I hear of progress in the human resource domain in view of the unfortunate legacy of apartheid in our country.  Given this legacy, every report of progress should be able to withstand scrutiny based on the transformational targets and values of our country.

 

With a smile on my face, I can share that the report, based on 2017 figures, estimates that 44% of our nanotechnology researchers are white, 36% black African, 14% Indian, and 4% coloured.  In terms of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Amendment Act of 2013, this translates to 54% black researchers in nanotechnology.  But my smile is dampened by the disappointing fact that only 27% of the researchers are female.

 

Granted, this is work in progress.  Nonetheless, the demographics of our country dictate that more should be done, at a faster pace, to realise the transformational values of our country in this era of freedom and democracy.

 

I draw your attention to the fact that a considerable portion of the study commissioned by the DSI was dedicated to an analysis of postgraduate students.  This involved looking at demographics and throughput spread across various institutions.  The results show that the targets of 400 master's and 50 doctoral graduates, as set out in the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology 10-Year Research Plan, have been exceeded, with 418 master's and 398 doctoral students having graduated over the review period.

 

There is no doubt that significant research activity is taking place at the majority of universities across the country.  While this research is largely fundamental in nature, the scope of areas of application identified in the National Nanotechnology Strategy is being well covered.  These areas of application range across water, energy, health and pharmaceuticals, chemicals and bioprocessing, mining and minerals, and advanced materials and manufacturing.

 

I suspect that you are beginning to wonder what all this means in terms of knowledge production.  Of course, there has been rapid growth in publications when measured against both GDP and size of population.  The figures are comparable to other developing nations.  There have been more than 5 000 nanotechnology publications, greatly exceeding the 150 publications targeted in the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology 10-Year Research Plan.  In addition, many of these were joint publications, involving extensive collaboration and cross-pollination between local and international institutions.

 

However, we have always been alive to the imperative that publishing in academic journals should not be an end in itself.  Knowledge creation should lead to the production of goods and services.  Such goods should favour us with patents.  And the time, money and creative energy we invest in the production of our goods should give us a competitive advantage in the commercial domain.  This is the value chain we have in mind when we play in this space as a country.

 

Against this background I am pleased to inform you that, according to the DSI-commissioned study, there were 44 patents against a target of 10.  In this regard, South Africa is performing favourably compared with its developing country peers.  I should add that three spin-out companies have been started based on the research conducted at various universities.

 

This is not taking place without challenges.  Major barriers to the commercialisation of research in South Africa include lack of funding, difficulty in finding commercial partners, and regulatory and intellectual property issues.  According to the study, offices of technology transfer have not always been able to adequately meet the needs of researchers.

 

The importance of standards, procedures and guidelines for evaluating nanoproducts prior to sale to the public was also highlighted by the National Institute for Occupational Health, and standards are currently being developed globally.  It would appear from the study, however, that such testing is not high on the agenda of many researchers in South Africa.

 

Whatever the challenges may be, I can give you the assurance that government is doing its utmost to level the playing field.  To this end, the country's achievements in nanotechnology research, development and innovation have been supported by extensive funding for research and equipment purchases, primarily from the DSI and its entity the National Research Foundation.  Over the study period, more than R950 million was provided for research.  Of this, close to R500 million was in the form of direct DSI funding to the Nanotechnology Innovation Centres.

 

While it feels good to indulge in navel-gazing after achieving some difficult targets, we should never ignore the warning lights.  A worrying finding from the Greenhouse Consultants study tells us that, while our efforts in nanotechnology have yielded significant outputs in terms of human capital development and research publications, commercialisation has fallen short of the level targeted in the National Nanotechnology Strategy.  I am glad that the Organising Committee has flagged the need to close this gap as a guiding principle for the 2019 Nano School.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, it would be remiss of me if I ended my talk without mentioning our achievements in terms of infrastructure development in this field.  Let me single out the establishment of the Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy.  Recognising the importance of high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM) as a technique for materials characterisation and development at the nanoscale, the DSI and the National Research Foundation established this centre at Nelson Mandela University, with most of the funding provided by the DSI through its equipment programme.

 

The DSI provided R69 million for the acquisition of the HRTEM system, and continues to provide about R5 million per annum in funding for operational costs.  Other contributors include the DSI's sister department, the Department of Higher Education and Training, which provided R27 million for construction of the infrastructure needed to house the HRTEM system.  Petrochemicals company Sasol contributed R5 million, and has also provided about R1 million to help the centre create a world-class multimedia facility for teaching, training and public awareness.

 

As government, we appreciate the generous support we get from our partners.  There is space in abundance for those who are prepared to step up and lend a hand in the building of our country.

 

I trust that the participants in this Nano School will make the best of this rare opportunity.  The nation is expecting great results that will propel our beautiful country forward.

 

I thank you.