AfricaLive In Conversation with Prof Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, CEO of the National Research Foundation of South Africa

AfricaLive In Conversation with Prof Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, CEO of the National Research Foundation of South Africa

Key Quote: “The question is, how can we rejuvenate South African industries? It involves revisiting the industrial landscape and figuring out how science can contribute to their growth, competitiveness, and success. We believe that by establishing robust institutions, including stronger universities, we can attract industry partners and make South Africa their destination for gaining a competitive edge.

Our vision for creating new industries may be ambitious, but we’re confident that it can be achieved.”

Key Points

A Globally Relevant Research Hub: It often flies under the radar of the international community, but South Africa continues to make significant contributions to global research, as witnessed by its contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic. South African research extends to physics, nuclear science, humanities, and addressing societal issues like migration and population movements.

Research with Real World Impact: The NRF understands research must have real-world impact. South Africa has suffered from the decline of many of its traditional industries. Research & innovation, conducted in partnership with industry, can unleash South Africa’s potential in emerging sectors such as lithium-ion battery production.

Africa’s Leapfrogging Industries: The African continent, with its youthful population, has the opportunity to lead in technology adoption and creation. Job roles are evolving with advancements in technology, creating new opportunities. 

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge: In South Africa, the value of incorporating indigenous knowledge into research is understood. Traditional practices, such as those related to healthcare, offer valuable insights. Integrating this knowledge into the broader learning system is essential for finding cost-effective and accessible African solutions.

AfricaLive: For readers unfamiliar with your background and the NRF’s mission, could you provide an overview of your identity and your role within the research ecosystem?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: Our primary role within the national context is to facilitate the creation of innovation, knowledge and development,  in all scientific domains, spanning from social sciences to humanities to STEM fields. We do this by supporting, promoting and advancing research and human capacity development. We are responsible for human capacity development by funding students and emerging researchers, including collaborations with universities to establish a robust talent pipeline. Our engagement extends to all 26 public universities in South Africa. 

We offer support for researchers across diverse domains through research chairs, centres of excellence, and mobility grants for conferences, amongst others. This aligns with our role as a significant research granting agency in South Africa, marking the initial aspect of our mandate.

The second part of our mandate revolves around providing research infrastructure. We oversee national facilities, which are large-scale research hubs, most of which span multiple domains. These facilities include nuclear facilities and research laboratories like our own iThemba LABS (Laboratories for Accelerator Based Sciences) for isotope production and nuclear science. Our focus isn’t solely on production but also on creating research infrastructure essential for nuclear physics, nuclear medicine, and cancer treatment experiments. These facilities are substantial investments, with notable projects such as the Square Kilometre Array, which has global significance.

In addition, we support initiatives that transcend individual universities and domains, like astrophysics and environmental observations, which also extend to aquatic biodiversity along our extensive coastline. We study various aspects, from fish species to plant biodiversity.

The third part of our mandate  is to ensure that the public remains well-informed and engaged. This interview, for instance, aligns with this objective, as it addresses the importance of making science accessible to the community. 

We want to enable not just our research but also that of other institutions within the National Science System. It’s about conveying the value of science and helping the public understand how government investments in research benefit them. 

Lastly, we focus on enabling development, ensuring that our research aligns with government priorities, particularly in addressing issues like poverty, unemployment, and inequality in South Africa. We aim to make a positive impact on society through responsible and impactful science.

Elements of our funding involve university collaborations, interaction with science councils, and coordination with other research funding bodies in South Africa, such as the Medical Research Council. We aim to ensure a balanced allocation of resources and avoid over-concentration in one area unless it’s a deliberate strategic choice.

Link to the full article here

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