SKA headlines a bumper year for Department of Science and Technology

This year was probably the Department of Science and Technology’s most exciting in its 10-year existence.

The winning of the majority of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope was one of the biggest coups in the history of South African science. The Karoo will be home to the largest scientific instrument in the world, which will be the largest radio telescope with more than 3,000 dishes spiralling up through Africa.

Tension rose in the run-up to the bid announcement in May, with The Australian newspaper reporting that Australian Science Minister Chris Evans had said an "aid mind-set" was Australia’s main impediment to hosting the R23bn SKA. "The thing that works against us the most is the sympathy for doing more in Africa — the European view that says we ought to be doing more development in Africa," it quoted the minister as saying.

The independent SKA site advisory committee selected South Africa as the technically superior site, so when the split was announced a number of South Africans described it as a "kick in the teeth for Africa".

However, many now regard this as the best decision, considering the financial investments made by both South Africa and Australia in their precursor telescopes, the MeerKAT and ASKAP respectively.

Lauded as one of the main drivers in South Africa’s SKA success, former science and technology minister Naledi Pandor was moved by President Jacob Zuma in October and was succeeded by her former deputy, Derek Hanekom.

Ms Pandor is now home affairs minister.

On her watch, she oversaw the completion of the ministerial review of the science, technology and innovation landscape, which began in 2010.

The review, which Ms Pandor handed to Parliament, recommends a reorganisation of the landscape; that teaching at all levels be declared an essential service; that the government’s technical and scientific services — such as forensic laboratories — be moved into science councils; that foreigners compete on an equal footing with South Africans for research jobs; and that the R700m allocated to fund knowledge infrastructure for the next six years be doubled.

Mr Hanekom says that in his new position, he will continue to build on Ms Pandor’s work, and focus on implementing the recommendations, which his department is working through.

Also sitting with the department is the National Space Programme, which was meant to be published in June.

The programme will map South Africa’s space activities for the next 30 years.

South African National Space Agency (Sansa) CEO Sandile Malinga says that, although the programme has not been finalised, the agency is already implementing some of the projects it details, such as South Africa’s contribution to the African Resource Management Constellation (ARMC).

South Africa will be contribution a satellite, ZA-ARMC1, to the constellation. The ARMC agreement, signed in 2009 between South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya, binds South Africa to produce at least one satellite to monitor the region’s water, agriculture, climate and human settlement patterns, among other things.

The R450m satellite — R100m of which will come from the Treasury — aims to reduce African reliance on European satellite footage and make the continent more self-sufficient, as well as build human capacity in space science and engineering.

However, 2012 also heard the death knell for SunSpace, the South African microsatellite manufacturer. In 2010, the Cabinet agreed in principle to buy an equity stake in the company, which has been in dire financial straits. This decision was reiterated last year.

But in October it was decided instead that SunSpace would be absorbed into the space agency. Talks are still under way as to how this will happen.

On the academic front, the Department of Science and Technology, through the National Research Foundation (NRF), added another 60 research chairs, taking the total to 152.

"The idea of research chairs was to have leading academics at professorial level whose primary activity is to do research and train postgraduate students," Romilla Maharaj, the NRF’s executive director: human and institutional capacity development, said.

Since its inception in 2005, the department has invested R1,1bn in the South African Research Chairs Initiative.

The research output shows that the initiative, in conjunction with the Department of Higher Education’s financial incentives for publishing papers, is working.

Academic publications rose steeply from the year 2004 to 7,468 publications in 2010, pushing South Africa into 33rd spot in the world, according to research by Prof Anastassios Pouris of the University of Pretoria.

This is the largest number of publications produced to date, he writes in his article, Science in South Africa: The Dawn of a Renaissance, published this year in the South African Journal of Science.

However, research experts agree this cannot be sustained unless South Africa trains up new academic talent.

Written by: Sarah Wild

Picture credit: Business Day

  • This article was published on Business Day online.


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