University of Pretoria: Transdisciplinary research will be key in unlocking African science and innovation potential

Transdisciplinary research in Africa could be the turnkey that unlocks progress in the research and scientific innovations that address climate change, gender-based violence and achieving net zero targets – but collaboration is pivotal.

This was the consensus among speakers at the opening plenary session on the first day of the Sustainability, Research and Innovation (SRI) Congress in Pretoria.

The SRI Congress is a joint initiative of Future Earth and the Belmont Forum and is being held both onsite and online from June 20-24, and is hosted by the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria.

The Congress’ first plenary, titled: African Science and Innovation – Inspiring Continental Transformation brought together an esteemed panel including Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Pretoria; Judy Dlamini, Founder and Chairman of the Mbekani Group; Dr Phil Mjwara, the Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation for the Government of South Africa and researcher in Equatorial Guinea, Maximiliano Fero Meñe.

“As scientists and as policy-makers, there’s a lot of advocacy work we need to do to convince politicians both of the research we do and also to invest in science and innovation,” Mjwara said, as he elaborated on the several key initiatives the department had been involved in backing in science policy and research.

“We believe in these days when governments and everyone is excited about innovation – there’s a big danger of diverting resources away from research to harness knowledge for innovation purposes. What we have done in South Africa to support this (research), in particular this area of sustainability research, is we convinced our politicians but more importantly, we convinced our scientists that it is important for us to choose some of the areas to concentrate resources in.”

This included setting up the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) for scientists to work on projects related to earth systems research.

“On the research side we think this center has done very well, they continue to be approached by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and make significant contributions to other organizations looking for this research…There we have done well, where we haven’t done well is how does this research help us in South Africa to translate this science and research into policy. “So this is an area we would like to focus on over the next couple of years,” Mjwara added.

He said that the department was “pleasantly surprised” two years ago to learn they would be given R1.2billion over three years by the government as an innovation fund to fund innovations that showed promise that could be taken to the marketplace.

Dlamini spoke to the importance of transdisciplinary research in eliminating the scourge of gender-based violence.

She was referencing the Thuthuzela Care Centres (TCC), which are centres for survivors of gender-based violence in South Africa that implement the transdisciplinary approach, and are led by the National Prosecuting Authority’s Sexual Offences and Community Affairs Unit (SOCA) in partnership with various departments and donors as a response to support rape victims. The centers and the success thereof were testament to the fact that cross-sectoral collaboration was key.

Asked about the role of private sector support, Dlamini said: “We could do better… without funding, none of the research would be sustainable. To expand TCCs across the continent, we need funding from the private sector.”

Speaking on the role of higher education institutions in bringing about transformation and sustainability in transdisciplinary research, Kupe said, “The interesting thing about research, knowledge and innovation is that it has no boundaries. A transdisciplinary approach is not possible without collaboration… The future lies in collaboration. The future lies in partnerships.”