Guest Column

Preparing for the modern world together

2018-12-12 11:28
Multicolored lighting on Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg city.

Multicolored lighting on Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg city.

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South Africa will not be able to meet its full potential if it is unable to turn the ideas its many bright minds generate into the products and services, which will support the country's industries of the future, writes Nigel Casey.

Anyone who has been to any business conference in recent years knows that the 4th Industrial Revolution is coming. We don't know yet what sort of jobs it will create, and which it may destroy. But we are clear that those societies which invest in their capacity for research and innovation are going to be best placed to reap the opportunities it brings.

And the British and South African governments are acting on that, together. Indeed it's become one of the most exciting and dynamic dimensions of our relationship.

Here in South Africa, the Department of Science and Technology recently launched its Science and Innovation White Paper. This provides a strong long-term vision for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) supporting government's ambition to deliver a more prosperous and inclusive society.

This trans-disciplinary and cross-departmental approach will not only inform research investment decisions but link them to commercialisation. South Africa will not be able to meet its full potential if it is unable to turn the ideas its many bright minds generate into the products and services, which will support the country's industries of the future.

This has echoes in the UK where a year ago the British Government launched its own blueprint for sustained economic growth in the form of our new Industrial Strategy. The strategy aims to boost productivity by backing businesses to create good jobs and increase the earning power of people throughout the UK with investment in skills. "Investing in Science, Research and Innovation" is the first of 10 strategic pillars to support an increasingly innovative economy and efforts to commercialise world-leading science. This strategy will be guided by Grand Challenges that focus on global trends like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big-data which will transform all of our futures. Minister Kubayi-Ngubane has recently been nominated as a member of the new Global AI Council, and I want to see closer links around this shared priority. 

Both our countries are already heavily invested in a partnership to deliver the world leading Square Kilometre Array programme, which is challenging our researchers to develop new big data management processing systems.

There are further synergies between our research environments. South Africa punches above its weight, with research output more than doubling over the past 20 years. This is led by a number of traditional and world renowned research institutions, and supported by efforts to tackle the challenge of building wider capacity and capability, including in historically disadvantaged universities. 

With 1% of the world's population, the UK is home to 12 of the top 100 universities. And this is not by accident – we are there because we welcome the pace of change and recognise that we cannot rest on our laurels but need to continue to strengthen our historic institutions as well as support new thought leading institutions through public investment and policy. 

Both the UK and South Africa also recognise that science is an international enterprise. Discoveries know no borders, and some of the best research comes through international partnerships. In 2016, 50% of South African research papers involved co-authorship with at least one international author.

This is why the UK invests so heavily in international collaborations to drive research and build capacity and partnerships for the future. Between DFID and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy alone the British Government has committed £3.25bn over five years.

Since 2015, the British government has spent over £50m on research that involves South African institutions. With our shared interest in driving research excellence, our commitment to international collaboration and our strong historical links it is no surprise that our science relationship is so strong. The jewel in this bilateral crown is the Newton Fund, a ground-breaking partnership which has grown each of its five years of existence, with the UK contribution in 2018/19 valued at £7.5m.

Nigel Casey Newton Fund infographic

Why is Newton so important? It is delivering world class research collaborations in fields like: health, with programmes (TB, non-communicable disease, mental health) that are saving lives today; and social policy that is supporting and implementing Africa-centric ideals, re-imagining urbanisation and combating inequality.

Newton is developing research and innovation capacity through programmes targeting early career researchers, such as PhD fellowships and working to strengthen innovators and the innovation ecosystem. Newton supports the growth of collaborations through hundreds of mobility grants that are building personal and institutional partnerships that will cement our researcher links for a generation.

So Newton has changed the traditional development narrative. It is a true partnership, based on shared priorities and co-investment. And it is built around a recognition that our greatest science is driven not by governments, but by the minds of those emerging scientists from our two countries who will shape our shared futures.

The Science Forum provides a platform for open dialogue and partnership between these emerging and established researchers, members of the public who have a direct interest in what science should focus on and policy makers who look to both to make informed decisions. I look forward to learning more about the discussions at the forum and the ideas of those who drive it. Will you be one of them? Share your views with me at #UKSAScience.

- Nigel Casey is the British High Commissioner of South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini.

Read more on:    britain  |  south africa  |  fourth industrial revolution
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