"Why Science With, In and For Africa Matters". 

It's a rare privilege to be here today. I would like to begin by thanking the outgoing CEO of the AAAS, Dr Alan Leshner, for inviting me to deliver this topical lecture. He has been an advocate over many years for science diplomacy.

Last week South Africa marked the historic day 25 years ago when Nelson Mandela, our icon, was released from prison. On that day of his freedom he took the first steps toward shaping a South Africa that could focus on national development and on using our talents for the benefit of all.

A little acknowledged fact is that Mandela's freedom not only set South Africa free but also set Africa free as well. We are now able to share our relatively advanced science and innovation resources with other African countries.

Today, as the beneficiaries of the legacy of Mr Mandela, I wish to share with you our vision for science collaboration with Africa and the opportunities opened up by the potential for innovation that exist on our continent.

Last year's US-Africa Leaders Summitwasan important step towards deepeningunderstandingof the many and complex challenges that Africa faces.

One of the facts we need to acknowledge as we contemplate deeper ties is the fact that Africa is a continent of 54 countries with diverse interests, attributes, and policy-focus areas.

Africa’s drive for innovation will site2016 the world beyond Africa because out of it will come a new way of thinking about the world and its difficult challenges.

Africa’s socio-economic evolution will site2016 conventional assumptions about every compartment of human activity.

In other words, it is our belief that Africa’s capacity for innovation will shape the future of not only Africans but everyone on this planet.Companies such as Microsoft, IBM, and Intel have recognised the innovation potential of some regions of Africa, but we have not yet built research and development partnerships that will lead to the emergence of a robust and productive innovation system in Africa. We have shown that we have a rich appetite for technology as can be seen in the growth in Internet access and mobile technology on the continent.

So I agree with Caroline Kende-Robb, executive director of the Africa Progress Panel, when she says: “Africa’s embrace of technology turns two common assumptions inside out –that tech breakthroughs happen in rich countries, and that Africa needs basic services before it can use high-tech solutions."

First I need to give you an idea of the breadth and depth of South African science and technology innovation.

South Africa is fortunate to boast excellence in a large number of cutting-edge science and technology domains. Whether it is in nanotechnology or astronomy, laser technology or high performance computing, South Africa has made an impactin the global science area. Measured by the impact of their publications in international scientific journals, South African researchers are among the most productive in the world.

With regard to the life sciences, South African scientists have for years been at the forefront of the fight against infectious diseases such as HIV-Aids, malaria and tuberculosis. Internationally acclaimed work underway includes the development of a malaria drug, an HIV-Aids vaccine and a microbicide gel to prevent HIV-Aids infection. Our goal is now to ensure our scientific excellence will translate into the development of South Africa’s own pharmaceutical industry, which will create jobs. A secret weapon in our life sciences arsenal with tremendous potential is our pioneering work in indigenous knowledge systems.

In the area of global site2016, South African scientists are making critical contributions to global work for example by the International Panel on Climate site2016. Whether it is in the field of protecting biodiversity, or the development of more efficient management systems for natural resources, such as water, South African scientists count among the best. Our collective global ability to understand what is happening to our planet would be much the poorer without South Africa’s contributions to many international observation systems. We are also well placed to optimally leverage the opportunities of the so-called green economy, with exciting plans for example in the field of waste research and innovation.

Energy security is high on the world’s political, economic and environmental, but also scientific agenda. For South Africa, our undisputed flagship success story is our hydrogen and fuel cell programme. We have developed novel metal catalysts for fuel cells from the platinum group of metals, with exciting opportunities for commercialisation. It is an excellent example of the beneficiation of our raw materials through science and technology. We are expanding our work in the renewable energy field, especially solar, and are well placed to become an important player in the lucrative lithium-ion battery market –as a result of smart investments.

With regard to space science- I will talk later aboutthe progress of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project- the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) is continuing its impressive progress with plans well advanced for the construction of a new South African satellite. South Africa is recognised as a space nation, but more pertinently as a nation successfully investing in space science to improve the quality of living of its citizen. This is, for example, achieved through making data and information products obtained from space platforms available to improve decision-making in managing disasters.

SouthAfrican programmes to lift people out of poverty especially in remote rural areas through science- and technology-based interventions have attracted huge international interest from respected partners, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. South Africa is now at the forefront of innovative programmes to provide decent sanitation service delivery to impoverished communities. Our CSIR’s “wireless mesh network”, which brings Internet connectivity to rural areas, is not only narrowing but also eliminating the digital divide and enables micro enterprise development in poverty-stricken areas.

Our research in marine science and its potential contribution to the blue economy and our successful technology development programmes to support beneficiation of raw materials, such as the development of the titanium metal power industry and fluoro-chemicals products. Our investment in advanced manufacturing technologies continues to ensure the South African aeronautics industry is a sought after partner for global players like Airbus and Boeing.

Based on our science and (technology) innovation strengths we are committed to building science and technology capacity in Africa.

Africa isconfronted by many global challenges, such as climate site2016, pandemic disease or energy security. In order to address these, enhanced global science and innovation partnerships are required to unleash Africa’s enormous potential to contribute to global knowledge generation.

African countries have made a determined effort to increase research, development and innovation (RDI). The past fifteen years have witnessed focused interventions in higher education in science councils, academies and in universities.

Many countries have begun to budget for science, technology and innovation (STI) and most of them have targeted 1% of GDP as their future contribution to research funding.

While there has been a positive shift in RDI, we have not yet begun to generate the levels of success we agreed when we developed our first Africa STI Plan of Action. Lastyear we adopted our second Africa STI Plan and we are currently developing action plans. The new strategy prioritizes the use of research to drive economic and social development across the continent. It commits signatory countries to six goals, including tackling hunger, disease and unemployment, and will set up structures to pursue them.

African research and innovation programmes are progressing in a number of disciplines. The complex challenges confronting our continent have created an opportunity for Africa to beat the forefront of global scientific discovery as highlighted,for example,by the pioneering work undertaken in South Africa in areas such as microbicides to prevent HIV-Aids, as well as drug and vaccine development for malaria and tuberculosis. This work has benefited immensely from a wide range of collaborators and international funding partners.

Forexample, in the European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), a multi-billion Euro project, African countriescollaborate to accelerate vaccine and drug development targeting the major poverty-related infectious diseases such as HIV-Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.TheEDCTP is co-owned by African and European governments. Co-ownership has enabled a greater African strategic input into the design and implementation of the programme. Not only will this approach build Africa's research and innovation capacities but it will also enhance Africa’s profile as a science and technology partner for Europe. 

I am certain that we can devise many new partnerships that will respond to diverse interests and objectives. I firmly believe that Africa can no longer rely on being a recipient of solutions but must increasingly provide solutions and develop new products on the continent.

In the astronomy sciences we have made important investments, both with regard to infrastructure and human capital, to position Africa as an international partner of choice. A decade of investment in this area of comparative advantage has given us many economic opportunities. Engineers, astrophysicists, ICT specialists and several other professions have been able to participate in our initiatives. Some of our telescopes are located in remote rural areas –we have had to build roads, ensure energy supply and connectivity for all our projects. All this astronomy work has brought economic opportunity to vulnerable communities and supported the development of science and mathematics at local schools. The astronomy sciences have given life to a re-invigorated science focus in South Africa and several African countries.   

We are immensely proud of winning the bid to hostSKA, which is global recognition of the progress of African science and technology. For the first time, Africa will host one of the world’s major large-scale research infrastructures. Americais not a key partner in the SKA. But thereis still a special case to be made for a focused radio astronomy partnership between Africa and America.

Radio astronomy investment in recent years has raised both the supply of and demand for a skilled, science, technology and engineering workforce. Because of this increase of human capital in African economies, it has contributed to the creation and growth of a high-knowledge skill-base across the African continent. With its potential to advance our fundamental understanding of the universe, radio astronomy has captured the imagination of young people and increased the number of students studying astronomy and space-related sciences at universities. MeerKAT, the South African SKA precursor, is already contributing to the development of astronomical and engineering skills across Africa. Since technologies being developed for these telescopes will be commercialised in the next 10-20 years, young Africans currently working on the project will be in high demand around the world. Embedded in the wider international perspective of the SKA, the building, commissioning and operation will significantly enhance their science and engineering experience.

Radio astronomy is a powerful driver for innovation in domains such as information and communication technologies, including high-speed networks and super-computing, advanced materials and manufacturing and renewable energy. Theoutlook for African-American science cooperation is changing in an exciting and for some, perhaps even surprising manner, with much greater potential for mutually beneficial partnerships.

For the first time in four decades we are experiencing a brain gain in Africa as a result of the SKA project.

It is imperative for Africa’s scientists to work in Africa if they are to support development on the continent, if they are to play a role in smooth technology transfer and if they are to drive innovation. A global project such as the SKA is giving effect to all these objectives.

This astronomy infrastructure presents a massive leap forward in terms of IT infrastructure, bringing enhanced high speed connectivity and computing capability to Africa.

Building IT infrastructure in Africa is the subject of many international partnerships.

Since the Africa-EU Summit held in Lisbon in 2007, South Africa has been fully committed to the implementation of the Africa-EU Science, Information Society and Space Partnership.

Following global trends, we are investing in the modernisation of research and development infrastructure, and in particular, new instruments and facilities (like the Centre for High Performance Computing) as key components in the drive to ensure that there is the requisite capacity to generate new knowledge.

Through the Centre for High Performance Computing, we hope for the development of nodes and partnerships with higher education and research institutions as well as industry –in South Africa, the rest of Africa and the rest of the world.

The Centre is also crucial for the development of the country and the continent’s much-needed human capital. It will support the exsite2016 of data between us and our partners, as well as research initiated by bodies such as the Square Kilometre Array, the National Bioinformatics Network and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems.

Science knows no frontiers, as shown by the participation of African scientists in the European Union’s excellence-driven, highly competitive Seventh Framework Programme. The success of our partnership will depend on increasing Africa’s contribution to global science as, I must stress, an equal partner.

The European Union Framework Programme has also given us a platform to create opportunities to enhance African ICT research capacity by collaborating with European researchers.

South Africa, with countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, to name a few, are leading actors in the implementation of the Network for the Coordination and Advancement of sub-Saharan Africa-EU Science and Technology Cooperation project, better known as CAAST-Net.

In closing

The best investment in Africa’s long-term sustainable development is an investment in the continent’s indigenous research and innovation capacities.

I believe there is now a golden opportunity to develop new, strategic and mutually beneficial African science partnerships. These are partnerships that will not only enrich the global scientific knowledge base but also transform scientific disciplines to the benefit of us all.

Prosperous African nations are those with governments that create the right enabling environment for science and technologyinnovationto flourish. Determining the besttechnology policy is relatively straightforward, but having the people ready to take advantage of resource-rich opportunities is the real challenge.

The most important new technologydriver is highly skilled human capital. We all compete in a global market for scientists and entrepreneurs. It's remarkable that of the five South African Nobel laureates who have received their prize for chemistry or medicine, all now live in other countries. South Africa is the only major Nobel country (with more laureates than any other developing countries, and indeed more than many developed ones) that has seen a net emigration of prize winners. And the same is true of entrepreneurs, including the 2013 laureate Michael Levitt and the USA-based space entrepreneur Elon Musk. We have lost them to the US and the UK, but will work in partnership with them on key global scientific initiatives.

I would like to conclude by addressing our keen invitation to expand Africa science diplomacy and to build Africa and American science excellence by establishing a wider range of research links involving our universities and science councils in strategic partnerships that can advance our development goals and increase research, development and innovation in Africa and the rest of the world.