In his 2007 inaugural lecture titled The Future of Medicine, UCT's Professor Bongani Mayosi threw a pebble into a pool.
The country and the health system, he said, needed a skilled and innovative research force. He then proposed, among other things, the establishment of a clinical-research centre, based in Cape Town, that would train at least 1,000 clinical PhD scholars "who will change the fortunes of clinical medicine in Africa for the next 100 years".
It's an idea Mayosi would pitch again, on behalf of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), in its 2009 Consensus Report on Revitalising Clinical Research in South Africa: A study on clinical research and related training in South Africa, chairing ASSAf's 13-member study panel. He would bring it up again, more recently, in the 2011 National health Research Summit Report as chairperson of the National Health Research Committee, which advises the state on health issues.
Now the ripple that sprung from that inaugural pebble has reached the national Department of Health (DoH). In April, Deputy Health Minister Gwen Ramokgopa announced that the government will launch a far-reaching PhD training programme that will aim to enrol 1,000 - Mayosi's magic number - new PhD students in the health sciences by 2022.
The DoH will fund 30 PhDs in the 2012/2013 financial year to the tune of R13 million. It's planned that another 60 doctoral candidates will register the following year, thanks to another R30 million, and 120 more the year after, with government injecting a further R50 million.
Students will be funded for four years. In addition, the candidates will be selected from across the health sciences, says Mayosi.
"We are elevating the whole system."
The PhD initiative is just part of a bigger programme, he explains. That research centre he mooted is one of many still on the cards; funding for priority research projects is also being discussed; as are changes to the regulatory environments of both new medicines and to the current research-funding system.
It's a programme that will call on funding from both the public and private sectors.
His initial proposal was inspired by his own difficulties as a research student, explains Mayosi. The training environment stymied his aspirations as a budding clinical researcher, and in the end he had to give up on a paying job - despite the responsibilities of "a wife, two children and a dog" - to pursue his research ambitions.
Today it is as tricky for health professionals to commit themselves to research. "Tertiary service units struggle to remain active in research, and to translate their expertise into improved health service," the ASSAf panel wrote in their report.
"That is unacceptable," said Mayosi. "These people are essential for the system - the country needs to invest in scholarship, and invest in scholarship on a large scale."
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The University of Cape Town mourns the passing of Professor Bongani Mayosi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, who left us on the morning of Friday, 27 July. While this is a very difficult time for both students and staff, particularly those in the Faculty of Health Sciences, it is also a time to reflect on and celebrate the incredible life of one of the university’s finest academics and researchers.