Address by Minister Nzimande at the national launch of National Science Week 2023 in Thohoyandou - 22 July 2023

Programme Director and Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation, Dr Phil Mjwara;

Executive Mayor of Vhembe District, Councillor Nenguda Dowelani;

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Venda, Dr Bernard Nthambeleni;

The Executive Committee of the University;

CEO of the National Research Foundation, Professor Fulufhelo Nelwamondo;

Managing Director of SAASTA, Dr Mamoeletsi Mosia;

Members of the University Council;

Senior government officials – national and provincial;

Academics and students;

School principals, educators, school governing bodies members and learners;

Distinguished guests;

Members of the media;

Ladies and gentlemen.

Ndi matsheloni!!! Avuxeni !!! Dumelang !!!! Good Morning !!!!

 

INTRODUCTION

I am honoured today to be joining you today as we launch the National Science Week 2023 under the theme “"Building a culture of evidence-based practice."  The National Science Week will run from 31 July to 5 August throughout our country.

What also makes this launch extra-ordinarily momentous is that it is taking place in the month marking the 105th birthday of our former President Nelson Mandela.

Personally, I am always inspired by one of Madiba quote, that states: “It always seems impossible until it's done,”. The quote is about encouraging people to pursue their aspirations, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

South Africa and the entire world has challenges which needs us to expeditiously advance science, technology and innovation. 

As we may be aware, environmental pollution, climate change, poverty, inequality and global public health crisis are posing severe challenges to humanity today.

South Africa is currently considered one of the most technologically advanced countries in Africa, and was rated the most innovative region in sub-Saharan Africa in the 2022 Global Innovation Index.

We continue to advance our position among the world's scientifically and technologically advanced countries, and we are working hard to profile our scientific achievements.

In 2022, South Africa was ranked 69th  in innovation inputs and 61st in innovation outputs.

This is an achievement that we all must celebrate today.

DSI COMMITMENTS ON SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION (STI)

Ladies and Gentlemen

As a Department of Science and Innovation, we have committed ourselves to using science, technology and innovation as catalyst for  faster and inclusive economic growth, in the short and longer term, as per the National Development Plan.

We are also committed to building the science and technology pipeline, and to broadening representativeness in science and technology, making sure that young people, women and people with disabilities are mainstreamed in science-related careers and education at all levels.

This is one of the reasons we host the annual National Science Week, as part of our efforts to contribute to the development of a society that is knowledgeable about science and critically engages on science, technology and innovation.

This year, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), a unit of our entity the National Research Foundation, will continue to award grants to various organisations – public, private and non-governmental – who will carry out activities to popularise science across South Africa, and promote science literacy, during the Science Week. 

I therefore want to make a call to all our learners that no one should be left out of the solution-driven national discourse that speaks to the value of science in our lives and for our future.

As you may know, SAASTA also hosts various competitions such as the AstroQuiz, aimed at Grade 7 learners based on themes around astronomy; the National Schools Debates, which is the competition that gives learners an opportunity to develop their research, critical thinking and information literacy skills, the National Science Olympiad, which is a competition comprises an annual examination in science (Physical and Life Sciences); and the Natural Science Olympiad, an annual written examination comprising of questions set by field experts in Natural Sciences.

I therefore want to  encourage learners to participate in these competitions in order for them to improve their science knowledge and understanding.

Today we have seen the level of interaction between scientists and the public at the exhibition centre.  These are very important!

Having considered that engaging the public is not a natural skill amongst our researchers, we have committed through the 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, to collaborate with our universities to establish appropriate training programmes in science. 

I am glad to inform you that the first such programme that the Department of Science and Innovation initiated has begun in the current academic year at the University of Limpopo. 

The Department is providing seed funding in the first three years of the programme and, as we speak, there are forty-two (42) students registered for this fully accredited Postgraduate Diploma in Science Communication. This qualification offers basic science communication skills to scientists and knowledge brokers in journalism, education, and traditional science awareness at places such as museums and science centres. 

CREATION OF NEW KNOWLEDGE BETWEEN RESEARCHERS AND THE PUBLIC

Ladies and gentlemen

Our endeavours to foster public engagement with research to advance evidence-based decision making and practice should go beyond traditional science communication approaches. 

It is for this reason that my Department of Science and Innovation is focusing its efforts on creating an enabling environment for citizen science as a means for the co-creation of new knowledge between researchers and members of the public.

Our aim is to see researchers collaborate with citizens at different stages of a research project.  It could be before the project, when citizens and researchers define the research problem and question together; during the project, when citizens play a role as per research methodology; or post-project, when citizens and the researchers jointly disseminate and engage the research results. 

There are currently seven such projects that are coordinated by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement.  Six of them are each based at different universities that draw their citizen scientists from their local communities. One such project is a collaborative research initiative between school learners and researchers from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. 

There are two exciting developments within this space of citizen science.  MeerKAT, which is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array project in the Northern Cape, is due to release its second data set after the first was only released abroad. 

I am pleased to announce that systems have been put in place to establish the MeerKAT Citizen Science Initiative, in which members of the public will participate in the analysis of this second data set. 

Internationally, the Global Science Forum of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has established what is referred to as the Expert Group on Citizen Science. 

South Africa, through my Department of Science and Innovation, is the only African country among the seventeen (17) countries working together towards global policy guidelines to promote citizen engagement in the production of scientific knowledge.

Our focus would be misplaced if we only talk about the production of new knowledge, public access to it and its utilisation, without paying much attention to the supply of skilled researchers. 

The reason we requested the presence of school principals and other educators is because I have a special message and request to deliver to you. 

You are the officials who are at the coalface of the production of the raw materials for building a pipeline for research human resources. 

The learner from Thengwe Secondary School, Uyatshila Munenyiwa, is exemplary because she has what it takes to produce and supply these raw materials.  She earlier presented a project that won her the South African Youth Water Prize 2023 at a provincial level.

I plead with all our principals and teachers to improve efforts in making sure that more learners in your schools take part in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation (STEMI) olympiads and the completions and exhibition  that I have already mentioned. 

Research indicates that STEMI olympiads and fairs are useful in developing problem-solving, creative, computational, communication, and innovation skills, which are among the skills that are important for the future of work. 

It is also counter-productive to discourage your learners from choosing mathematics, as many school principals are already doing, thinking that that is the best way for their schools to produce better results by avoiding the purportedly difficult mathematics. 

Let the National Science Week 2023 be a turning point.  Make sure that on each day from 31 July to 5 August 2023, there is at least one fun science experiment that every classroom in your school engages in before learners disperse.  There are many such experiments available on the internet. 

Officials from my department and SAASTA will assist you with the relevant links and other related details.

Those of you who have been following our science engagement campaign over the years will know that our emphasis has largely on generating public awareness of science, grounded mainly in communicating science to the public in exciting ways. 

While not discounting the relevance of that approach, we have expanded our campaign to prioritise building a mutual relationship between the public and research activities.

Our latest approach is necessary because we intend to democratise the production of new knowledge while maximising the potential use of research knowledge beyond academia. 

Nonetheless, our heavy investment of public funding into research, particularly basic research at public universities, makes us expect that new research knowledge should be taken to the public and opportunities be created for members of the public to collaborate with researchers in the production of new knowledge.

Through my Department of Higher Education and Training, government continues to spend handsomely on the incentive system to encourage research output by funding universities for articles published in accredited journals, peer-reviewed conference proceedings, or the publication of books. 

Universities further access additional research funding that is made available by the Department of Science and Innovation through the National Research Foundation. 

I must say that I am encouraged by the NRF's endeavours to highlight the significance of research impact beyond the academia through the adopted Framework to Advance the Societal and Knowledge Impact of Research.

Public access to research knowledge and citizens' participation in the co-creation of knowledge will undoubtedly lead us to a situation where science is embedded in daily life. 

I want to urge universities to establish systems that will enable their researchers to exchange their research knowledge with the public, because we do not see any other effective means to encourage the potential utilisation of their research. 

Without research utilisation, we can forget the goal of getting any closer to significant societal impacts of research and science. 

OPENING OF THE FACULTLY OF HEATH SCIENCES BUILDING

Before I conclude my remarks, this morning I also participated in two other important activities. I officially opened the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) funded Faculty of Health Sciences building here at the University of Venda. This new building will accommodate four departments in the Health Science faculty.

The total cost of constructing the building is R248 374 864 83, with funding from the DHET being R137 116 665 00 and R111 258 199 83 coming from the UNIVEN Council.

I want to appeal to all students, lecturers and the management of the university to take care of this building.

I also handed over a new luxury bus to be used for transporting students for clinical training and I also handed over two double cabs automatic vehicles.

CONCLUSION

As I conclude, I thank the University of Venda, under the leadership of Dr Bernard Nthambeleni, for not only agreeing to host this event but also for being part of the organising team and participating in the event. 

To the Executive Mayor of the Vhembe District, who is representing the Limpopo government, your support is well aligned with the cooperative governance constitutional obligations, which I appreciate very much. I thank our exhibitors and all of you for joining us today.

With these words, I declare National Science Week 2023 officially launched.  Come 31 July 2023, the only noise in the country should be about science.

I thank you.

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