Tag: Science Forum 2015

South Africa needs to understand local climate change

“We’re already on course for a world that is different to the one experienced by humanity since its evolution,” climate scientist Bob Scholes told the Science Forum on Tuesday.

This month, the world’s leading climate scientists and policy makers met in Paris to hammer out an international agreement in an attempt to constrain global temperature increases by two degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels.

However, the UK MET office announced last month that average global temperatures had already risen by one degree.

“Over the last 10,000 years, the climate of the world has been remarkably stable…. It became possible to have agriculture, complex civilisations, which obviously led to science,” said Scholes, who has contributed to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) assessment reports and is a distinguished professor at the University of Witwatersrand’s Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute.

However, “Southern Africa warms up at twice the global rate… Day-time temperatures have increased by half a degree in the last century, but night-time seen a 2.44 degree increase,” he noted.

In the “Change is in the Air” report, launched by the South African Environmental Observation Network on the sidelines of the forum, the authors note that while work has been done in other parts of the world to understand how temperature changes will affect ecosystems, more research is needed to understand what will happen in South Africa.

“South Africa covers less than 1% of the world’s land surface and is home to nearly 10% of the world’s plant species, about 7% of the world’s vertebrates and 5.5% of all known insect diversity,” they write. Industries, such as tourism, and economic livelihoods depend on these ecosystems.

“The effects of warming on species’ ranges are widely reported [in cooler parts of the world, such as the Northern Hemisphere] and many people and policy makers assume that plants and animals will respond in a similar manner across the world.”

However, this is not the case. In a semi-arid country like South Africa, the availability of water is just as important. “It is important to understand that the impacts of global change vary across the world and a local perspective and local information is required to understand changes in our own areas, project their likely outcome, and plan accordingly,” the authors write.

Stellenbosch University scientist Prof Guy Midgley referred to this as an “operating manual for the planet”. Midgley, who returned to science after being involved in the IPCC, said he returned to research because “what you realise [being involved in the IPCC] is that we’re trying to make policy with imperfect science. Someone has to keep doing science. There is still quite a lot of uncertainty about how the world works. We don’t have an operating manual for the planet, and we need one.”

While Scholes said that there is not a hard threshold “when the wheels fall off, the risk [of extreme weather events and natural disasters] goes up”.

However, there are non-negotiable thresholds, he said. These include the melting point of ice – because as temperatures rise, the tundra in the Arctic and Antarctic will melt – and the body temperature of warm-blooded mammals.

“You and I all have body temperatures within fractions of degrees of each other. It is the same for all warm-blooded animals,” Scholes said. “As temperatures rise, we struggle to control our body temperature. Our [human] productivity drops about a quarter for every two-degree increase in temperature. Livestock fail to produce milk and breed.”

But, at the same time, animals and ecosystems are more susceptible to the rate of change, rather than incremental change. If temperatures increase slowly, ecosystems adapt, but … if the climate changes too fast, it runs ahead of them [ecosystems and animals].”

However, this rate of change works both ways. While humans needed to curb emissions to stop an escalation in temperature, “trying to reduce emissions too fast would also cause problems”, Scholes said.


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

Africa needs science to advance

“Africa cannot advance without investing in science,” science and technology minister Naledi Pandor told the opening session of the Science Forum.

Investment in research and development (R&D) is considered an important metric in economic competitiveness, growth and job creation. However, while Pandor flags the need to invest more in science and technology, South Africa is consistently failing to meet its own R&D investment targets.

The original goal was to spend 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D by 2008, but seven years later that target has still not been met. While the actual amount spent on R&D has increased – GDP has been growing – the percentage of GDP spent on R&D has not. The African National Congress has noted that this is an area of concern, and is pressing for 1.5% of GDP to be spent on research. Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, the most recent figures available, that percentage has languished at about 0.76%. The country would need to more than double its spend on R&D to meet the ANC’s proposed target.

For some context, the average R&D spend for countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is about 2.4% of GDP. What this means in tangible terms is that these countries are spending more money on trying to come up with new products and new ways of doing things – and other countries, like South Africa, are buying this technology.

According to the National Advisory Council on Innovation’s (Naci’s) 2014 science, technology and innovation indicators, in 2013 the country imported $1.9-billion in technology, while it exported about $63-million. Specialists say that this situation is unsustainable, as the balance of payments continues to steadily widen.

“If you keep importing more than you are exporting, you have this balance of trade deficit,” Azar Jammine, Naci’s project leader for monitoring, evaluation and indicators. “You become more and more reliant on your peers. The more you innovate, the more competitive you should become with your peers. It enhances the ability of your country to export more with its own facilities, and not rely on imports to keep the country going,” he said.

South Africa’s technology balance of payments is one of the highest in the world.

This also makes the country dependent of foreign exchange, which is particularly important as the rand continues to weaken against other major currencies.

The story of South Africa’s innovation woes can be seen in its patent numbers which, according to the 2014 indicators, continue to decline. The number of patent family applications, which is a single patent of invention filed in different countries by the same inventor or owner, plummeted from a peak in 144 in 2008 to 45 in 2012.

This makes South Africa substantially less competitive to comparison to over countries, as we are shackled to buying their technology.

The department of science and technology has instituted a number of programmes to address both business’ reticence to invest in R&D and the decline in patent numbers.

Through the R&D tax incentive, businesses are effectively paid to undertake R&D in the country, although the uptake take of this incentive has been slow. Similarly, interventions to boost the number of patentable and commercialisable technologies developed in the country, such as the Technology Innovation Agency which was established in 2008, are yet to realise their hoped-for potential.

In her address to the Science Forum, African Union (AU) chair Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma said: In terms of “African development, do we want to go back to the industrial revolution, or use science to leap frog? We don’t want to be the recipients of technology. We want to manufacture, so we need science to do that.

“Everything that is a priority for the African Union needs science…. I cannot think of anything we are doing that does not need science,” she said.

While the economic implications of increased R&D spend are well established, science and technology can also be used to address on-the-ground problems.

Pandor said: “Unfortunately, science is still at the margins of government attention. [It is] seen as less significant than water scarcity, food insecurity, disease burdens, and yet all of these things can be addressed through investments in science.”

While Pandor noted that science was not a focus of government attention, the department of science and technology’s budget continues to grow despite a constrained economic environment.

In the national budget announced earlier this year, the department, which co-ordinates research in South Africa and oversees the National Research Foundation, the country’s main disburser of postgraduate funding – saw its budget increase from R6.48-billion in 2014-15 to R7.48-billion in 2015-16, R7.56-billion in 2016-17 and R7.61-billion in 2017-18.

But while government continues to spend more on science, technology and innovation, the same cannot be said of business. The 2012-13 financial year marked a watershed in the spending of R&D: it was the first year in which government spending on R&D surpassed that of business.

This is rather singular: in most countries around the world, business drives R&D spend. But industry’s reticence to invest in South Africa – and R&D is just one form of investment – has been repeatedly cited as a major factor hampering innovation in the country.

Most of government’s spend has been at higher education institutions, and through the funding of postgraduate students.

This is an area in which South Africa’s innovation system is seeing some success. The number of doctoral candidates produced in the country has increased, as well as the percentage from previously disadvantaged background. In his keynote address in the Science Forum’s first session, Prof Salim Abdool Karim – head of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa – noted that 2013 was the first year in which more doctorates were awarded to black candidates than white.

In 2004, 1 105 people were awarded PhDs, and this number had almost doubled – to 2,051 – in 2013. The number of doctorates in science and technology subjects more than doubled in this period.

A major theme that ran throughout the forum was the need to develop human capacity to help African countries achieve their development goals. Dlamini-Zuma noted that Africa, as a continent, had a comparatively young population. “All of these young people [are] an asset if we invest in them, a big liability if we don’t,” she said.


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

Education at the click of a button

It is education at the press of a button. Anyone with an internet connection can access some of the best teachers the world has to offer. Since they began in 2008, more than 25-million people have enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), in courses that range from Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (taught by Stanford University academics) to Grammar and Punctuation (offered by the University of California).

With a quality education still out of reach for the majority of South Africans, and university access limited to the minority, could MOOCs offer a way for South Africans to educate themselves?

“MOOCs [are] a way, not the way, to do continuous education over time,” said Prof Phillipe Gillet, vice-president for academic affairs at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

MOOCs involve “courses segmented into small weekly models, short videos, online quizzes … [and] online forums”, Gillet said. These courses are tailored for university students, but also self-learners and professionals.

His institute began offering MOOCs in 2012, and has a division dedicated to “MOOCs in Africa”, he said. “While you have fewer internet connections in Africa, those connections are used for learning.”

However, could this nostrum work in the South African context?

Rachel Prinsloo, in the University of South Africa’s department of academic planning, said that, while the university is looking at the possibility of introducing MOOCs, the real issue that South Africa faces is youth not in education, training or development. “There are about 2-million [of these individuals] in South Africa, and the number is growing. MOOCs in our context must be something different,” she said.

This idea was taken further by Square Kilometre Array South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff. “I’m told there are 50-million cellphones in South Africa, half are smartphones, and new phones bought are smartphones,” he said. “But one would have to look at how you would deliver courses to phones on limited bandwidth.”

MOOCs could play an important role in areas like professional development for teachers, or offering foundation courses for first-year university students from previously disadvantaged schools, Fanaroff said.

However, the major sticking point on MOOCs is quality assurance and accreditation.

“Communities are seeing technology as a way to access information and to build up qualification, but [MOOCs institutions] have not solved the issues of assessments, accreditation, global partnerships or how to allocate credits,” Prinsloo says.

Here is also the additional concern about drop out rates. It is estimated that, out of the millions of people who sign up for these courses, less than 10% actually complete the course. When asked about this, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s Gillet said: “Usually, the mean is 6%-10% worldwide [write the final exam] … but that is still quite a lot.”

However, in the South African context, there is already a high dropout rate at traditional universities, with only 15% of undergraduate completing their degrees, according to 2013 Department of Higher Education and Training figures. Dropout rates could be even higher for an online course in which there is no face to face contact.

Gillet said: “There are many different kinds of MOOCs: social science and humanities on the one hand, science on the other. There are things you cannot do with a MOOC, like surgery. There are also things that cannot do if you do not have a campus [where students go for courses, practicals and exams]…. There are things you can do with MOOCs and things you cannot do.”

But MOOCs could change the way that students engage with campuses. “They are the new textbooks to some extent. We have to rethink the way that we are teaching,” Gillet said.

  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

Science could guide the cities of the future

African cities are seeing the world’s fastest urban growth, but this is happening in a haphazard fashion which is exacerbating poverty and inequality among citizens. According to the United Nations’ unit for human settlements, it is expected that some African cities will account for up to 85% of the population by 2025.

Can science help to address this problem and plan for the future?

Prof Ivan Turok, with the Human Sciences Research Council, said: “Within the last decade, there’s been a huge increase in global research on the science of cities, trying to introduce a systematic modeling of urban processes.”

Through big data and the collection of novel data sets, the goal is to “get a sense of what’s happening in cities, to model and measure [different variables]”, Turok said.

Known as a “smart city”, this idea conceptualises a city as “a machine, measured and managed through control centres”. Some metrics include transportation routes, the movement of people into and out of the city, water and energy requirements, and clinics. There is also the more intangible elements of cities, like cultural currency, population identity and non-formal value chains.

Prof Philip Harrison questioned whether a city can actually be modelled. Harrison, who has a research chair in development planning at modeling at the University of the Witwatersrand and is a member of the National Planning Commission, said: “Cities clearly are not natural things. They are human constructs, the artifacts of human history, the products of human intention, imagination [and] failure…. They are fluid and too complex to be modelled in any comprehensive way.”

Planning involves “reaching a consensus about what we should be doing into the future, mediating diverse interests, but the world is far messier, the science more limited, than we thought”, he said.

“[A city] is an assemblage of multiple things: local, global, tangible, intangible…. We may attempt to model parts of it, but we must accept the limitations of our knowledge.”

This was echoed by Elsona van Huyssteen, an urban and regional planner at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. “There is no way that we can cope with understanding what is happening, let alone pre-actively plan… If we’re struggling to model the past and the present, it makes [modelling] the future quite challenging,” she said.

However, the alternative – not using a rational systematic approach to attempt to model the complexities of cities – is worse. South African Cities Network’s Dr Gica Karuri-Sebina said that people need to attempt to plan for cities and for changes that they attempt to institute in cities. “The long-term consequences of the short-term things we do as planners [run] the risk of creating large challenges,” she said. Unlike academics, being a city planner involves “doing things and then there are consequences”.

Modelling and urban simulation alters how people engaging with city planning, said Van Huyssteen. “The question doesn’t become what would that city look like, but what are the consequences of that kind of intervention…. Being in urban science means being uncomfortable. We have to acknowledge that we do not know, that maybe we don’t have an answer,” she said.


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

COMMENT: Can a scientist become an activist?


South Africans have been shouting at each other for a decade about whether we should “frack” the Karoo. Everyone has an opinion about hydraulically fracturing (fracking) in this area to liberate natural gas from shale rock, despite a dearth of information and facts – such as whether the gas is there in the first place.

This year, the government established a scientific task team to develop “a science-based assessment to improve our understanding of the risks and opportunities of shale gas development”.

It took 10 years for us to start asking the experts – scientists – to collect facts for us. In the meanwhile, that space in the national discourse has been usurped by politicians, lobbyists and people with vested interests.

That is on the extreme end of the science communication spectrum, where a lack of science voices allowed a national debate to devolve into shouted polemic.

The other side of the spectrum is, as an example, Tim Noakes. Noakes is before the Health Professions Council of South Africa on a charge of misconduct after he advised a mother on Twitter to wean her child onto a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. This diet has not been sanctioned as a dietary guideline and there is little data on its effects on infants.

Noakes is a very strong advocate of this diet, and has gone beyond communicating the science behind his position into aggressively marketing the diet. He also has a personal and financial interest in the diet being adopted as he is co-author of a number of diet books.

This is not the consensus view of scientists, and lacks data on its effects on South Africans: an Indian woman may respond differently to this diet than a white man, for example.

The problem on this side of the spectrum is that people trust scientists. They are disproportionately listened to and believed, in comparison to, say, politicians or government officials. It is very problematic when a scientist plays on the trust conferred to them as a scientist, whilst breaking away from the data- and evidence-driven basis upon which the discipline earned its privileged standing.

While scientists need to communicate their science and engage with the public at large – as shown by the fracking example – there is a difference between communicating science and scientists marketing themselves.

As part of our panel discussion at the Science Forum, climate scientist Bob Scholes said: “Science is not just one way of knowing among others. It is a privileged pedagogy. There is a public perception of objectivity.” He listed three reasons for this: the transparency of the scientific process, that it is self-correcting (“eventually … even if it takes a while”, he joked) and it is based on observation and evidence.

However, when scientists market themselves and their science, the perception of their objectivity is compromised, and sometimes their objectivity itself. This ultimately erodes people’s trust in science.

But an undercurrent running through the discussion of whether scientists can be advocates of their science is that billions of rands are spent on science and research annually. Science communicator Marina Joubert, who moderated the session, said that scientists have a moral imperative to engage with the public about their research because, ultimately, it is undertaken with public money.

Another side to this is that scientists need to convince the public to continue spending money on research, and increase it. By raising the visibility of science and research, it justifies the expense to those holding the strings of the public purse.

This concept of science engagement is relatively new to South Africa. Up until 1994, most of the country’s science and research was entirely funded by the military (and something that was not discussed in public forums) or it was undertaken within corporations or parastatals to help Apartheid South Africa innovate its way around sanctions (once again, scientists were not encouraged to divulge information about this).

But we’re now in democratic South Africa. We need science and technology to develop and boost our economic competitiveness, but most citizens are often not science literate or fail to see how science can make a difference in their lives.

So, on the one hand, scientists do need to communicate their science, but on the other they need to do so in a way that is accurate and not self-aggrandising – because, ultimately, this erodes people’s trust in science. So how does the average member of the public sift through what is trustworthy science communication and science marketing?

That is done through science journalists, but, unfortunately for South Africa, there are only a handful of these journalists in the country. It is the journalist’s job – in science, as in any other beat of journalism – to sift through fact and fiction, and give their reader the information that they require to make up their own minds. This is doubly true for science, where concepts and jargon often obfuscate the message.

Perhaps we are having the wrong conversation, and the question should not be whether scientists can be advocates of their science. It should be: where are all the science-literate journalists who can tell when scientists are trying to promote themselves instead of their science?

Wild was part of the Science Forum panel, “Scientists as Public Experts: From Evidence to Advocacy”


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

Square Kilometre Array needed to train next generation of scientists — Pandor

Flagship initiatives such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project “have the potential to support our training and production of the next generation of scientists and technologists in Africa”, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor told the opening plenary of South Africa’s inaugural Science Forum.

“Scientists need iconic, challenging initiatives that will respond to their search for new knowledge and innovative technology.”

The SKA, which has a conservative price tag of EUR2-billion, will be the largest radio telescope on Earth, with thousands of antennae throughout Australia and Africa. The core of the telescope will be in South Africa’s Northern Cape. All celestial bodies emit radio waves, and by collecting these relatively weak signals, scientists will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most baffling questions: Is there other life in the universe, what happened right after the big bang and what is dark matter?

However, this initiative is not limited to South Africa. There are eight other African partner countries – namely Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia – which will have collections of SKA antennae in their countries.

As part of its efforts to ensure that African countries have the capacity to host a portion of this giant telescope, SKA South Africa initiated a human capital development programme. To date, more than 600 people from the continent have received bursaries to become technicians, engineers, or scientists.

SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff has said that this project has reduced South Africa’s brain drain, with South African scientists and engineers returning home as well as foreign experts being attracted by the possibility of working on the telescope.

South Africa is also building its own telescope: the 64-dish MeerKAT, a precursor telescope being design, built and funded by South Africa, will form part of SKA Phase One.

The first five years of the MeerKAT’s observing time had already been allocated to scientists from all over the world, including South Africa, Prof Russ Taylor told an audience at the Science Forum.

But one of the major challenges of modern radio astronomy – a problem which will be exemplified in the SKA – is how to process all of the data coming from the antennae, he said. Taylor is one of the SKA research chairs, based at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape.

“It is well-known to be one of the most challenging big data [projects],” Taylor said. “We’re talking ‘exaflops’ of data. That doesn’t exist yet.”

An exaflop involves a billion billion calculations per second.

“The SKA is a driver for developing the solution, so it’s a good area of research to get involved in to learn data science and the techiques we can use to analyse big data sets,” Taylor said earlier this year. [S: he told me this in October.]

However, at the moment, South Africa lacks data scientists, and there is a concerted push to training people in this area, so that the country is not left out of this field of SKA science.

In September this year, three universities – the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and North West University – launched the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy.

At the launch of this institute, Pandor said: “A significant focus and investment in big data in South Africa is not only overdue, but is probably crucial if South Africa is to play a significant role in the world economy in the coming decades.”

Taylor told the packed room at the CSIR’s International Convention Centre that the role of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy was to “work on a solution for big data, but also to train people”.


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.