UCT awarded two world-class flagships

12 July 2004

(From left) Prof Daya Reddy, dean of science and chair of the NRF board; Prof Morné du Plessis; Prof Cheryl de la Rey, DVC for research and innovation; Prof Jack Fletcher; and dean of engineering and the built environment, Prof Cyril O'Connor.

UCT will host two of the country's six new DST Centres of Excellence, hubs of cutting-edge research and innovation devoted to disciplines spanning health, the natural, physical and social sciences, and technology. The centres were launched by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in Pretoria on June 26.

Professor Jack Fletcher heads the newly-established DST Centre of Excellence in Catalysis and Professor Morné du Plessis is at the helm of the DST Centre of Excellence in Birds as Keys to Biodiversity Conservation at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute (Fitztitute).

The prestigious centres, which integrate smaller and related research initiatives into single programmes, come with substantial funding, up to R50-million over 10 years. This will underwrite strategic research projects that will accelerate innovation and research as well as human capacity-building through education and training.

The news is significant for UCT; departments that host DST Centres of Excellence will attract sought-after projects and the pick of top-flight postgraduate students, bringing the country's capacity and research outputs in these disciplines on par with the best in the world.

The DST Centres of Excellence have five main mandates. These are to:

  • develop research and create and advance new knowledge
  • provide access to a highly-developed pool of knowledge
  • provide and maintain databases
  • promote knowledge sharing and transfer
  • collaborate actively with reputable individuals, groups and institutions.

The six new research hubs will pursue long-term projects of national interest, particularly those that pay attention to gender-based issues.

"This isn't business as usual," Fletcher commented. "These are big programmes, flagships that come with service-level agreements. They offer fantastic opportunities to take on real problems, over a long time. And with the size of the teams, the expertise involved and the funding horizon, we can do some meaningful work. It will be a spawning ground for innovative ideas."

Built into their mandates are human capital-development priorities, weighted towards disadvantaged groups in these research areas, especially women.

The DST Centre of Excellence in Catalysis is well-placed to take full advantage of this.

"The manufacturing sector is the largest contributor to South Africa's GDP, and chemical manufacturing is the biggest single contributor to this sector," Fletcher added. "The NRF has recognised chemical processing as a field ripe for targeted innovation initiatives and catalysis lies at the heart of 90% of all chemical transformation processes."

Their research will focus on the conversion of gas-to-liquid fuels and for downstream processing aimed at adding value to South African base chemicals. Working with eight partners, the Universities of the Western Cape, North West, North, Stellenbosch, Natal, Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (formerly RAU), and the Port Elizabeth Technikon, the full spectrum of the country's catalysis practitioners, the centre will create a comprehensive network capable of delivering innovative chemical processing. It will also develop a cohort of scientists, engineers, technologists and academics.

"We hope to produce an average of 12 PhDs and MSc graduates a year," Fletcher added. "We will also undertake an African outreach programme, drawing a collaborative research relationship with at least one African laboratory within its first two years."

The centre's scientific and technical programme will have two thrusts: a syngas thrust and a downstream-chemicals thrust. The first relates to South Africa's leading position in synthetic chemical processing and the country's coal/gas-to-chemicals/fuels technology base; comprising research programmes for the Fischer-Tropsch, methanol-to-chemical fuels and "direct" syngas to chemicals routes. The second thrust will support the growth of the currently under-developed, small-volume, fine and specialty chemicals sector.

The Fitzstitute has responded with equal enthusiasm to the news. In terms of known biodiversity, South Africa ranks third in the world after Brazil and Indonesia and is unique in that it is home to three biodiversity hotspots (fynbos, succulent Karoo and Pondoland).

"The award recognises the institute's past successes, but also comes with the expectation that it will continue delivering internationally competitive research and highly-skilled conservation biologists who can tackle conservation issues in Africa," said Du Plessis.

An already well-established and internationally competitive institution with a renowned MSc programme in conservation biology, over 200 MSc and PhD graduates have passed through the Fitztitute's portals since the sixties.

This DST centre includes a staff member each from the Universities of Pretoria, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand, and the Northern Flagship Institution, in a research programme that will be based on two interlinked themes: understanding and maintaining biodiversity.

The first theme investigates the composition and structure of biodiversity, the processes responsible for its generation and how relationships between organisms and their environments influence the form and functioning of biological systems.

The second builds on the strong theoretical and empirical foundations provided by the first to assess, predict and manage human impacts, with an emphasis on understanding the dynamic links that lead to biodiversity loss.

"We plan to develop effective strategies to stem this loss, and to discover ways to use components of biodiversity sustainability to the benefit of South Africa," Du Plessis explained.

Since 1992, 117 students have graduated from the Fitztitute's conservation biology programme. This will be enhanced under the new centre. In addition, plans are for a significant increase in the number of postdoctoral and PhD students with a concomitant increase in the quality of the Institute's research outputs.

"It will attract excellent students, thus broadening the pool of candidates for us to also elevate the quality of our outputs," Du Plessis noted.

Importantly, the substantial grant has enabled the Fitztitute to uncover a plan that has been under wraps for some years, the Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute. Du Plessis is hard at work on composing a job description. He agrees it will be a very high-profile position in African conservation biology, one that will undoubtedly be enhanced by the status denoted by a Centre of Excellence.

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Volume 23 Edition 18

12 Jul 2004

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