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Topnews, Statements

22. Juni 2015


"The case for investing in African science"

Dr Lassina Zerbo, CTBTO Executive Secretary;

Dr Michael Linhart, Secretary-General for Foreign Affairs of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs;

Mr Ahmet Uzumcu, Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons;

Lord Browne of Ladyton, Vice-Chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative;

Excellencies, delegates to the Science and Technology 2015 Conference;

Ladies and Gentlemen

It's a rare privilege to be here today. South Africa is a committed and consistent supporter of the work of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation. I had no hesitation in accepting the invitation, which I was honoured to receive from Dr Zerbo. I hope that my intervention this morning will assist our efforts to harness science and technology partnerships to build research and innovation capacity on the African continent.

South Africa is currently the only African country to operate nuclear power plants for electricity generation, Namibia, Niger and South Africa are major uranium producers, accounting for about 15% of world output, and South Africa hosts the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (Afcone) established under the mandate of the Pelindaba Treaty.

South Africa has been at the forefront of nuclear non-proliferation in Africa for over twenty years. We gave up our nuclear arsenal and signed the Pelindaba Treaty in 1996, which establishes Africa as a nuclear-weapons-free zone, a zone that only came into force in July 2009.

Our continent’s policy makers and institutions are increasingly focusing their attention on developing science, technology, and innovation capacity in Africa. South Africa is one of the champions for the new Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA) adopted by African leaders at the July 2014 African Union Assembly. STISA will focus Africa’s science, technology and innovation investment in six socio-economic benefit areas: one, eradicating hunger and ensuring food security in Africa; two, preventing and controlling disease, and ensuring human welfare in Africa; three, improving intra-African communication, through investing in physical and digital infrastructure; four, protecting Africa’s natural resources; five, building African communities, addressing aspects such as democratisation, urbanisation and conflict resolution; and six, creating wealth for Africa. Science is indeed at the heart of the AU’s Agenda 2063.

Two trends are placing Africa under ever-increasing pressure: rapid urbanisation and fast growth (Africa has no fewer than six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies). Cities built for small numbers are experiencing the in-migration of large numbers of people seeking new opportunities, modern infrastructure and public services. Economic growth has come mainly from commodity exports and not from developing manufacturing capacity or innovative products.

To cope with this twin pressure on the continent Africans have to embrace the complex issue of sustainable development and design and act on innovative responses to energy, health, and education challenges. While the challenges are not new the solutions cannot be replicas of the past. The future for Africa depends on our development of talented scientists who can serve as professionals in scarce-skills fields and take up the opportunity to develop new technologies and innovative solutions for intriguing scientific challenges in the water, sanitation and health fields.

One of the strategies we have developed with strong support from global partners is to utilise big science infrastructure projects as a means of attracting scientific talent to Africa. The iconic Square Kilometre Array Radio Telescope project is one such initiative. It brings together scientists in disciplines such as mathematics, physics, computer science and other fields working in Africa to build the largest scientific infrastructure on the continent. With global partners such as the UK, China, Japan, Italy and nine African partners this is a great example of a global scientific partnership. One of its benefits has been attracting young talented researchers and scientists from Africa and other regions of the world. We are pleased that for the first time we have a reversal of the loss of talent in Africa.

It is imperative for Africa’s scientists also 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. These are capabilities, which would be valuable assets also for the work of the Treaty Organisation.

It is our belief that prosperous African nations will be those with governments that create the right enabling environment for science and technology to flourish. Determining the best technology policy is relatively straightforward, but having the people ready to take advantage of resource-rich opportunities is the real challenge.

South Africa and several African countries have begun to invest in young scientists in an effort to expand our human capital base. We need larger numbers of Masters and PHDs to support our ambitions.

Young people trained in strategic science priorities such as renewable energy, bio-economy, information communication technology, health sciences, geology and all the engineering sciences are an urgent necessity for Africa. South Africa has acted in response to these needs by creating science institution-based mechanisms. We have a bold well funded Research Chairs programme that has created 150 Research Chairs in a wide range of fields. These chairs have assisted us in attracting senior researchers to train our next generation of researchers and innovators.

The complex challenges confronting African countries have created an opportunity to be at the forefront of global scientific discovery. One example is global change. Africa is affected by climate change in devastating ways. South African scientists are renowned for their contributions to earth-system science and understanding socio-ecological systems through their involvement in international research programmes. South Africa’s unique geographic position at the bottom tip of Africa and surrounded by the Southern Oceans as well as our long-standing research efforts in Antarctica and Marion Islands has allowed us to make an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the science of climate change and its biological effects.

The climate system, as part of a broader earth system, is complex and there are many areas where it is imperative for fundamental understanding to be substantially improved. South Africa has identified the importance of adopting a broader Earth Systems approach in order to better understand the likely impacts of human and natural changes and includes areas of research that go beyond climate change. The principal questions remaining for the majority of scientists concern not whether greenhouse gases will result in climate change, but the magnitude, speed, geographic details, and likelihood of surprises in the process of climate change. Enhancing our ability to effectively mitigate and adapt to climate change, is an excellent example where international scientific partnership was a critical prerequisite. The same will apply to non-proliferation.

Another global science opportunity is that of responding to energy insecurity in Africa. Many countries on the continent face an energy shortage for domestic and economic needs. South Africa has in the past seven years grappled with the significant problem of energy insecurity despite having the largest stock of energy on the continent. This has led to us developing an energy plan that exploits solar technology and enhances solar technology innovation for energy security and economic development in poor communities. Our Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme is a progressive alternative energy plan that has drawn approval from many countries around the world. In addition to solar, biomass and wind technology, we are planning to undertake a nuclear-based energy build programme. As you know, we already have Koeberg power station in South Africa. We have begun receiving support from IAEA and the Treaty Organisation.

World-class research infrastructure is one of the pillars for building competitive knowledge-based activities. Such research infrastructure attracts the best human capital resources. Sharing infrastructure means sharing resources and skills.

We have begun to create such opportunities through the regional centre for climate change research, Southern Africa Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land - use, which is located in Namibia and serves as a research hub for the entire SADC region.

Joint investments and exploitation of research infrastructures is essential. We believe such institutions create a platform for the regional and global collaboration support of work done by global bodies such as Treaty Organisation. Our science system is still relatively small compared to systems in the developed world. This is one of the reasons we have focused on local and global partnerships. We have created fifteen centres of excellence as hubs that draw together a whole range of universities and science councils into partnerships in tackling challenges such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, food security and malaria. We are hoping some of these centres will benefit from one of our biggest international science and innovation partnerships the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP). The partnership has contributed to accelerating the development of new interventions to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The EDCTP is a public- private partnership between 13 European and 13 Sub –Saharan African countries. The ten year budget up to 2014 is €1,9bn and it harnesses health innovation and technology investment. Similar partnership methodologies could serve the work of the Treaty Organisation well.

During the past twenty years science cooperation with European, American and Asian countries has played a valuable part in facilitating South African scientists’ integration into the global community following the isolation of apartheid. Through multiple training, mobility and networking programmes, international partnerships actively contributed to human capital development for science and technology in South Africa. These are partnerships we greatly appreciate. If South Africa today has a vibrant national system of innovation, with knowledge production consistently on the increase, this is no small part due to international cooperation. I would like to thank all our international partners for their support in this regard. We will continue to join forces in support of the work of the Treaty Organisation.

In closing, Africa’s drive for innovation will change the world beyond Africa because out of it will come a new way of thinking about the world, about health, and about technology. This will also impact on the work of the Treaty Organisation. Africa’s socio-economic evolution will change conventional assumptions about every compartment of human activity. In other words, it is my belief that Africa’s capacity for innovation will shape the future of not only Africans but everyone on this planet. In South Africa we tried "to pick winners" with an electric car and a small-scale nuclear reactor project. We then turned to astronomy and "picked a winner" in radio astronomy where we had a comparative advantage in knowledge and geography.

The most important new technology driver 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 country, 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 are determined to reverse this trend. The SKA has resulted in important gains but we will step up our efforts. Reversing brain drain and achieving brain circulation will also be critical if we are to achieve our objective of making science and technology work for the Treaty Organisation. We are committed to this objective and would like to work with all delegates and  members in developing a new science and technology compact, to underpin the work of this critical multilateral agreement. You can count on South Africa’s full support.

I thank you.



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