Address by the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom, at the Launch of the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (Access)
23 Aug 2010
Vice Chancellor, Prof. Brian O'Connell
Ladies and gentlemen
Thank you for inviting me to come and address you.
Beyond the very splendid building we are in today is the rich biodiversity of the Cape Fynbos Plant Kingdom – one of only six plant kingdoms in the world, and a source of immense pride to South Africans.
This unique natural splendour raises interesting scientific questions. What factors have endowed Southern Africa with such exceptional biodiversity, for instance? The search for answers to such questions gives us the opportunity to ask more questions, and to enhance our efforts to promote science and education.
South Africa has a proud and prolific history in the environmental sciences. According to Thomson Reuters, between 2004 and 2008 South Africa ranked above average in the scientific field of Environment and Ecology, contributing 1,29% of world output, with an average citation rate per paper over five. We are also pleased to have a strong representation in key international science initiatives, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and we have made a significant contribution in this respect, particularly in relation to issues that are of concern to the continent. This continues in the process that has now started on the 5th IPCC assessment report, and I would like to congratulate the South African scientists involved.
The Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) falls under the Ten-Year Innovation Plan's Global Change Grand Challenge and is a designated centre of excellence. In addition, it has a South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Research Chair, currently occupied by Prof. George Philander. But ACCESS has goals that go beyond the results expected of centres of excellence and the South African Research Chairs Initiative.
What exactly does ACCESS have in mind? For an answer, Prof. Philander proposed that I go and see the movie Invictus. I am sure that most of you have seen the movie but, for the benefit of the few who have not, let me give a very brief overview.
The movie is about South Africa's triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. More importantly, it is about building unity. At the time, the brand-new democratic South Africa needed a symbol to advance nation building, and former President Mandela chose the Springbok rugby team – rather surprisingly, as the majority of South Africans saw the team as a whites-only affair. But the Springboks were to become a shared national symbol.
You may be wondering what on earth the Springbok rugby team has to do with today's launch. Well, today, we are in need of a symbol to tackle another urgent problem – our inability to attract the desired number of students and learners, especially black students and learners, to science.
I am sure we all in agreement in that the number of scientists in South Africa is far less than we require, and the rate of transformation in science is unacceptably slow. As the Department responsible for this, we are making various attempts to deal with the problem, including the establishment of more SARChI research chairs and more centres of excellence. So far the results have been positive, but the shortage of skilled human capital remains severe. ACCESS proposes a novel approach to correct this.
In the same way that Nelson Mandela used rugby as a unifying force, making it a sport for black and white, rich and poor, ACCESS aims to make science a playing field for all the people – both the privileged and the previously and currently disadvantaged. It hopes to achieve this by being inclusive in its exploration, not of esoteric topics, but of phenomena we all love and cherish. ACCESS will contribute to making our continent not merely another participant in large international programmes, but an internationally recognised leader in science – a beacon that attracts students to science, a new symbol for South African education.
Admittedly, this is a very ambitious goal, but ACCESS, supported by my department, is confident that it is attainable.
The highest ranking university on the African continent is ranked 250th in the world, but the phenomena we are home to, including the fynbos, Karoo succulents and savannahs of southern Africa, are of international interest. So is the Cape Peninsula, where three strikingly different oceans meet.
We in southern Africa are in a very special place, at a special time. The past few millennia have provided us with a respite from prolonged Ice Ages by favouring us with unusually temperate climatic conditions. Our species, Homo sapiens, took advantage of this geological moment to advance rapidly, from the invention of farming to the electronic marvels that are changing our lives today. This impressive progress is cause for optimism.
ACCESS as a centre of excellence has a key role to play in the successful implementation of the Global Change Grand Challenge. It has been identified as one of the major flagship initiatives that will help us to advance scientific knowledge in South Africa and will play a major role in growing and developing the base of new, emerging and established researchers, particularly black researchers and women. We will be watching ACCESS closely in this regard to ensure that it helps to deliver on the key national imperative of building skills and knowledge.
ACCESS will help to consolidate and advance South Africa's position as a significant contributor to global change science. My department is confident that they will deliver good science and grow ACCESS into a leading world-class initiative by concentrating on building critical mass and strong capabilities in a relatively small number of areas rather than diluting their efforts by trying to cover too much.
During this symposium, we will learn about the important scientific questions ACCESS will address and how it proposes to share information with the rest of the world, in particular the marginalised sections of our society. I particularly look forward to hearing what four young students, whom ACCESS has already attracted to science, will propose in the way of accelerating transformation.
With the increasing challenges relating to environmental preservation, global climate change and energy security, and how all these affect the quality of life of current and future generations of people, we need not only to increase our knowledge of the world, but also to ensure that marginalised sections of our society have equal and unfettered access to the reservoirs of knowledge and information that institutions like ACCESS will produce.
At the level of the continent, there is an increasing appreciation of the catalytic and transformative role of science and technology. South African science and scientists are making valuable contributions to the scientific understanding of climate and environmental change on the African continent and we have strong programmes and partnerships in this area. South Africa has been called upon to play a role in strengthening science and technology on the continent and we are doing this in many ways, including the development of an African bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. The programmes of ACCESS, in terms of research and human capital development, can play a vital role in building science on the continent, but it will be important for the centre to engage closely with the efforts being driven and championed by the DST to ensure that these are effectively aligned to our broader strategies and efforts.
This is one of the surest ways of ensuring that ACCESS does indeed become inclusive and people centred.
I wish ACCESS every success, and assure you that the Department of Science and Technology will continue to support your efforts to build our knowledge base and our nation.
Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
23 Aug 2010
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