South Africa has the potential and talent to reach the highest levels of scientific achievement, but half of the country’s professors and associate professors were retiring within the next ten years, and not enough has been done to adequately prepare for their replacement, said Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.
Speaking at the 14th National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)/ BHP Billiton Awards gala dinner, in Kempton Park, last week, she said that strategies need to be developed to “respond to this potential loss of skilled professionals”.
She said that over 50-year-olds now produce five in ten of the country’s scientific papers, compared with one in ten of credited publications in 1990.
“We need tools and strategies that are targeted at providing a firm foundation for expanded success and increased graduation rates,” said Pandor.
However, she pointed out that the past ten years have not produced fast-enough growth in postgraduate student enrolments and the number of masters and doctoral graduates. Staff qualifications at universities and science councils also required improvement to develop human capacity for research, scholarship and innovation.
Further, a larger science infrastructure base should be established to absorb and produce young talent. She pointed to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project encouraging greater investment in science, as well as a greater interest in scientific careers among the youth.
As the SKA generated a new industry in information communication technologies, software engineers, data processors, system analysts and technicians would be trained to meet the increased skills requirement of the project.
She said that the NSTF/BHP Billiton awards signified the potential of South Africans to reach the highest levels of science achievement.
She added that the NSTF also demonstrated the ability of government, academia and industry to successfully collaborate.
The BHP Billiton-sponsored awards aimed to recognise outstanding contributions of individuals and groups to science, engineering, technology and innovation (Seti).
The winners comprised a number of individuals, innovators, teams, emerging researchers, students, established internationally recognised professors and scientists, including professors David Glasser, Bongani Mayosi, Leon Dicks, Heather Zar, Yahya Choonara, Valerie Corfield, Jolanda Roux and Jakobus Eloff, as well as Dr Amanda Weltman.
Team winners included the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s pavement design and construction team within the built environment division, the CapeRay Medical PantoScanner team and the Namaqualand Restoration Initiative project and its supporting organisation Nurture, Restore, Innovate.
The Brilliants Programme also recognised the scientific and mathematical achievements of learners in 2011 and was designed to encourage young talent to take up careers in Seti, provide career guidance, assist in the development of their full potential and provide support through bursaries.