The COVID-19 pandemic, which has engulfed South Africa and the rest of the world for the past 10 months has highlighted the importance of investments by governments in science, technology and innovation.
Evidence-based information has been at the heart of saving lives and developing a response to the deadly virus.
In the production of reagents, diagnostics, personal protective equipment (PPE) and a vaccine, scientific research has been critical.
The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), led by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, has been an active participant in the government's Health Ministerial Advisory Committee, which was tasked with advising on the implementation of programmes to contain the pandemic and ensure the safety of all South Africans.
Nzimande recently briefed the media on the DSI's efforts to prepare South Africa to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one becomes available.
The Minister highlighted the fact that the infrastructure necessary for doing this already existed in the country thanks to work previously done by the department.
The threat of future pandemics has thrust the country's ability to develop and manufacture vaccines locally into the spotlight.
Government, through the DSI, owns a 47.5% stake in bio-pharmaceutical company Biovac as part of a joint venture with the private sector. Biovac has over the years developed the capability to manufacture vaccines.
Investing in research
Over the past two decades, the DSI has made huge investments in research and innovation that have enabled the country to respond effectively to COVID-19.
These investments were made not only in the health care and related sectors, but also in other sectors as part of the DSI's efforts to become an innovative and inclusive department focused on improving the lives of all South Africans.
It is now widely accepted that science, technology and innovation are key to unlocking people's potential and creating improved social conditions, a competitive economy and a workforce positioned to take the country into the future.
In 2019, the DSI produced a new White Paper that laid out a core policy for driving science, technology, and innovation that delivers positive socio-economic outcomes through initiatives in fields including energy, health care, education, climate change, food security and manufacturing.
The DSI will adopt a leadership role in this drive, acting as an enabler of innovations and scientific discoveries that will provide solutions needed to address a broad spectrum of societal needs today and in the future.
In leading this endeavour, the DSI will draw on the work it has been doing over the past two decades.
Innovations and interventions
Not only has this work been crucial for empowering the best minds in the country today, it has also yielded numerous innovations and interventions that are now helping to modernise and improve society.
These include the following:
- The Hydrogen SA programme, which is providing an alternative source of energy that is noiseless, effective and pollution-free.
- A number of mining innovations to modernise this sector.
- An additive manufacturing and titanium metal powder programme.
- The development of the world's largest and fastest 3D printer.
- The development of a technology, known as Aquatrip, that identifies water leaks and prevents wastage by means of an inbuilt control valve.
- The development of a compound that has been found to have potent activity against all stages of malaria.
- A range of new biotechnology solutions, including animal feed products and an injectable bone regeneration product.
- A wheat breeding programme that is producing drought-resistant crops for sustainable food production and nutrition, one of many innovations to modernise the agricultural sector to ensure food security and sustainable nutrition.
- The project to the build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world's largest radio telescope and the largest scientific infrastructure on the African continent.
- Technological innovations in Earth observation that have enabled the provision of mapping data for use in spatial planning, disaster management, and the protection of our marine resources.
The Department leads this and other work together with its entities, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), National Research Foundation (NRF), Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), South African National Space Agency (SANSA), Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP).
Renaming the department
In 2019, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) was renamed the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in order to broadly embrace the drive to build a future that draws on and applies science and innovation for the betterment of society.
Backed by science
In October, Dr Nzimande announced that the DSI would be rolling out a brand campaign showcasing the department's work in various fields, including its contribution to the national response to COVID-19, in an effort to ensure that society is aware of the value of science in solving societal challenges.
"This will include work to address other diseases, as well as the contribution of science, technology and innovation in helping the economy recover from the pandemic, under the banner 'Making Sure It's Possible' and the hashtags #itspossible and #backedbyscience," the Minister said.
"I hope that, through this campaign, there will be a better appreciation of the impact of science, technology and innovation on our society, and a greater understanding that science saves lives."