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Collaboration plan for South African scientists fails to take off

Scientists have struggled to work together to provide solutions for societal challenges such as energy and climate change. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

A South African government plan to encourage scientists from different disciplines to work together and help shift the country’s economy towards a knowledge-based one has had a slow start.

Academics have not managed to work collaboratively to address, for example, the need for solutions in technology and energy, and energy and climate change.

As a result, South African academics are unlikely to meet the goals of government’s highly ambitious Global Change Programme.

A plan with good intentions

Seven years ago the Department of Science and Technology challenged South African scientists to collaborate on the production of knowledge that could be used to drive economic growth and social upliftment.

The plan called on South African scientists to take part in trans-disciplinary research. It was hoped that their efforts would provide solutions for some of the country’s most pressing social and economic problems.

The plan had four major knowledge themes:

  • Understanding a changing planet;

  • Reducing the human footprint;

  • Adapting the way we live; and

  • Innovation for sustainability.

There were also 18 key research themes, and five grand challenges. These were:

  • Strengthening the “farmer to pharma” value chain to make South Africa a world leader in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals;

  • Ensuring that the space science and technology sector contributes to innovation;

  • Addressing energy security issues through long-term solutions for clean coal technologies, nuclear energy, renewable energy and the hydrogen economy;

  • Tackling global climate change challenges; and

  • Encouraging South African science to play a key role in stimulating growth and development.

Research across scientific disciplines has not produced the desired results over the past five years. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

The missing links

Our assessment measured the level of research collaboration among scientists from different backgrounds using a model that calculated how often key words in research projects could be linked across themes. The projects we researched were presented at the 2014 conference on global change.

We used the linkages as a proxy for the extent to which the themes cut across disciplines. We found 164 linkages in 234 research projects.

The themes most often incorporated in the research projects were monitoring (26%), climate (10%), economics (10%), species (8%), conservation (8%), ecosystems (7%), ocean (6%), modelling (6%) and agriculture (5%).

But, troublingly, we found little or no links between the research topics and some of the key factors that will determine the achievement of South Africa’s objective of a knowledge-based economy.

For example, energy is vital for a growing economy. South Africa struggles to maintain energy security and has failed to resolve its energy shortage. This has resulted in slower economic growth and constrained investment. Energy shortages have also been found to constrain the development of sustainability initiatives and the innovation required to realise a knowledge-based economy.

Failure to improve in this area could reflect the lack of trans-disciplinary links between technology and energy, and between energy and climate change. South Africa is a leading carbon emitter and lacks the energy technology beyond using unsustainable fossil fuels. Also, South Africa lacks the know-how of renewable energy development. This also reflects a lack of policy development research.

When it comes to human development and social dynamics, South Africa has seen advancement in social development. But inequality and youth unemployment continue to grow rapidly. This may reflect poor linkages between the economics, transformation, education, poverty and rural development disciplines.

In terms of “farmer to pharma” and the bio-economy, South Africa remains a net importer with negligible pharmaceutical or other beneficiation export. There is no dedicated health theme in the plan.

Grand challenges not addressed

The success of the plan required researchers to go beyond the big themes in a trans-disciplinary manner. The idea was that researchers would apply their projects across several themes to solve real world problems. Their success was supposed to have been measured by tangible benefits to society.

With three years to go, it appears that the government’s objective will not be met. Effective research across different disciplines has not been achieved.

So where did it go wrong, and what can be done to address this in future?

Failure to realise the grand challenges can be attributed to gaps in research topics across specific big global themes.

This includes inadequate links between technology and energy, and energy and climate change. Linking these research areas could have solved some major crises. For example, greater links between geology and energy can lead to shale gas research, which may diversify the energy sector and, importantly, seek safe ways of harnessing this potential energy source.

Another important failure has been the lack of linkages between economics, transformation, education, poverty and rural development. This could help solve problems such as South Africa’s inadequate education system, growing inequality and increasing numbers of protests by local communities across the country.

All these issues are inter-linked. For example, education is very important for rural development.

Improving South Africa’s bio-economy faces a similar challenge. Only minor emphasis is placed on research that links agriculture to technology. There is also no link between agriculture and health.

Integration across disciplines needs urgent attention

It is not all gloom and doom. A 2014 National Research Foundation review of one project, the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth System Science programme, found that interdisciplinary research networking and community-building aspects have been successful.

They are supporting the training and development of the next generation of science leaders by enabling researchers with common interests to pursue inter-disciplinary research in areas of their choice. Examples include water resources, ecosystems and bio-geochemistry, oceans and the coastal landscape.

There are pockets of strong scientific activities, but the overall science mission is still evolving and requires urgent attention. The initiative has not met its objective of making the whole greater than sum of individual contributions. Integration and true trans-disciplinary collaborations are missing.

This piece is based on an article in the May/June 2015 issue of the South African Journal of Science.

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