The two-day Research & Innovation Conference on 7 and 8 April 2016 established that research and innovation is a key determinant in performance on the UN’s Strategic Development Goals (SDGs) 2030. In fact, this has been the case all over the world; so said Prof Roseanne Diab, Executive Officer: Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), speaking as part of a three-person panel leading a keynote dialogue on The Role of Research and Innovation in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Prof Diab singled out SDGs 1, 2, and 9 which focus on ending poverty in all its forms everywhere; ending hunger through promotion of sustainable agriculture; and building resilient infrastructure, promoting Inclusive and sustainable Industrialisation, and fostering innovation. She emphasised that South Africa’s ability to make headway in all these focus areas required solid research capability. However, she also expressed concern that while the number of researchers in South Africa had increased (according to an ASSAf study completed a few years ago), the number of technicians had remained static, which was a cause for serious concern in terms of the country’s transformation agenda and in light of the shortage of skills in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) areas.
Prof Diab noted that the SDGs necessitated an integrated and trans-disciplinary approach to research. That South Africa now hosts a regional Future Earth office (one of two in Africa) opens up opportunities for trans-disciplinary research needed to meet the SDGs on the African continent, she added. Future Earth is an international research vehicle which, through research, provides knowledge, enabling societies to mitigate the risks of global environmental change and optimise sustainability. It employs an inter-disciplinary approach to research on a Dynamic Planet: Global Sustainable Development and Transformations towards Sustainability.
She argued that South Africa’s performance on the SDGs depended on the extent to which Agenda 2030 is aligned to the National Development Plan (NDP), and the accuracy with which gaps can be identified between where we are as a country and where we need to be. She saw ASSAf playing a significant role in providing evidence-based research and feeding it into the government’s SDG-aligned policy-formulation processes.
Also contributing to the keynote dialogue was Dr Siphamandla Zondi, Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue and a National Planning Commissioner. His view was that even though the SDGs’ overriding concern was universal development, there was still no consensus on the meaning of universal development. He argued that development was still understood within a European paradigm, meaning growth, whereas development should be concerned with transforming the world for the betterment of those he termed the “bottom millions”. Dr Zondi, therefore, urged universities to examine their roles in stimulating innovation and knowledge with the capability to impact the poor. In order to succeed, universities needed to drive technological innovation that accelerated the achievement of equality, such as technologies with the capability to bridge the digital divide. “We need to think about responses that are directly linked to economic growth; … that will achieve a better understanding of the interfaces between the economy and citizens, and between regional, continental and global entities”.
Another view on research within the context of the SDGs was presented by Prof Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Kimberley-based Sol Plaatjie University (SPU). Prof Ballim argued that research was actually happening at the boundaries (at the peripheries) of disciplines, not within them (within their cores), and this posed a challenge regarding decisions on funding allocation and appropriate journals for publication.
Flowing from this discussion, Prof Eugene Cloete, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University (SU), recommended that in view of the limited R&I resources in South Africa focus be placed on the SDGs that address the country’s priority problems rather than trying to tackle all 17 SDGs simultaneously. Also recognising that South Africa’s grand challenges cut across disciplines, it was further recommended that research should strengthen its multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary approach as an initial measure to address the barriers to collaboration within the university system. Both these recommendations were adopted, amongst numerous others.
In conceptualising the R&I Dialogue 2016, Prof Cheryl de la Rey, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP) and Chairperson of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) noted that the RISG had considered the key global issues confronting South Africa, such as the UN’s SDGs 2030 and the partnership platform that emerged from the Rio Plus 20 Initiative. The RISG had also looked at current policy discussions on the African continent, as well as those emanating from the Education Summit, at which African governments, university and industry leaders had committed themselves to prioritise research and development for the achievement of the policy goals on the African agenda. Priority issues on the continent included achieving sustainable and inclusive economic growth, alleviating poverty, addressing gender issues, inequality within and between countries, and unsustainable production and consumption patterns.
The two-day Dialogue explored a number of thematic topics, namely research funding, research and cyber-infrastructure, transformation and human capital development (HCD), performance of the National System of Innovation (NSI), and a policy on internationalisation. The purpose of the dialogue was for the university sector to adopt policy positions on these issues and, in particular, to present HCD recommendations to the Minister of Science and Technology, following which there should be a commitment from the tertiary sector to co-operate fully with government towards the implementation of these goals.
Also contributing to the opening (keynote) dialogue was Ms Eva Ziegert, who presented the German view on sustainability in research, why collaboration was necessary, and performance indicators for universities.
In attendance at the R&I Dialogue were more than 70 delegates representing researchers, academics, Vice-Chancellors and Deputy Vice-Chancellors of public universities; members of the USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG); and representatives of government departments key to research development, such as the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and the National Treasury. In addition to ASSAf, other research institutions represented were the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), the National Research Foundation (NRF), and the Technology Innovation Agency (NIA). Business was represented by Sasol.