South African research must return to a system of major units, centres and institutes established competitively by the relevant government agencies either in higher education institutions or, when necessary, outside these.
This is one of the recommendations of Professor Wieland Gevers, Interim Director of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IIDMM) and Professor Ahmed Azad, Health Sciences Faculty Research Director, who recently returned from an exploratory trip of research institutes in India.
Visiting six different research institutes spread across India, the professors were eager to establish how these facilities were operating and what they could learn regarding the establishment of the IIDMM. They were also interested in learning how to develop a diminishing research culture in South Africa through the establishment of a network of research institutes.
According to Azad, the infrastructural costs of these Indian research institutes are almost totally funded by the Indian government. Each institute focuses on a particular research area regarded as having a high national priority.
"Focusing on one particular research area allows these institutes to become world-class performers in those fields and, as a result, they are allowed to confer their own research degrees, earning themselves the title of 'deemed' research universities," he explained.
India is seen as an ideal research partner for South Africa for a number of reasons. Both are viewed as developing countries where English is spoken and both experience the same problems.
Azad said: "In terms of research development, India has gone through the very same problems that South Africa is going through now. The researchers are incredibly good and extremely committed and the opportunity exists for South Africa to recruit these top-class individuals."
"India's cost structure system is also very low," added Gevers. "This means research can be undertaken in India for a fraction of the cost compared to other countries. Interestingly enough, Indian academics are paid one tenth of South African academics' salaries.
"We were truly humbled by the scale and level of work undertaken by the Indian researchers. They have developed a formidable research system and there are many lessons to learn from India - their deep respect for learning, their willingness to retain their own culture and yet work effectively in the modern context, and their manifest sense of common purpose," he remarked.
The Government of India has no fewer than six departments in its Ministry of Science and Technolgy, including a separate Department of Biotechnology. The UCT professors were fortunate enough to meet with the secretary of the biotechnology department, Manto Sharma.
The outcome of this visit led to a proposal being developed between the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSA) and the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), which among other activities sees annual workshops, in the specific areas of life sciences, being held alternately in South Africa and India. The first of these workshops will be held in Cape Town at the end of August.
As part of their eight-day visit to India, the professors also had the opportunity to visit the tuberculosis research institute of the pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, in Bangalore. Here, Azad and Gevers were joined by Professor Lafras Steyn, head of microbiology at UCT.
Due to this visit, the IIDMM will now develop specific plans to work together with India and AstraZeneca on TB.
Gevers explained: "Should any TB products be developed due to the collaboration between the IIDMM and India, these products will be subject to clinical trials by AstraZeneca in South Africa, with the help of UCT's Health Sciences Faculty."
The lessons learnt from India have been captured in a paper by Gevers entitled Lessons from other countries.
He believes that an examination of Singapore, Taiwan, China, Brazil and other countries comparable with South Africa is unlikely to yield a picture very different from that of India.