By Janny Chang – NEF Team Member
As part of the Next Einstein Forum, I had the privilege of attending the first Science Forum South Africa (SFSA) in Pretoria, South Africa from December 8th to 9th, 2015. I have attended many academic conferences and try to gauge conferences according to the overall experience. As I tell my colleagues, conferences are about the user or attendee experience, and based on this, the SFSA was as success. I will do my best to walk the reader through the pleasant experience of attending the SFSA.
First, upon entering the CSIR building, we were greeted with uniformed and friendly people directing us to registration kiosks. Although the lines looked long, they moved quickly and efficiently. Each kiosk was manned by someone who was there to help us register.
Second, there was great effort made to start the morning plenary session on time. We were rushed into a large auditorium and given sharp and informative hard copy programs. I was told later by a colleague that there was a mobile app, which displayed the program on screen, and allowed attendees to contact each other for networking purposes. The session chair, Dr. Phil Mjwara of the Department of Science and Technology started the session with anecdotes and facts about the relevance of science. This set the stage for the later technical panels and the overall event. Minister Naledi Pandor inspired the audience with an impassioned speech elucidating seven calls for action. They included:
1) Call on your governments to invest in science and innovation in Africa
2) Develop robust national systems of innovations and ecosystems of knowledge and creativity and joint industry research and public-private partnerships
3) Inform communities about science
4) Seek out and secure flagship science initiatives such as the SKA, as such initiatives have potential to support Africa in its training and production of scientists and technologists
5) Increase investments in health sciences as this is a direct investment in improving the quality of life
6) Foster African science collaboration as well as international collaborations. Universities are key to this collaboration goal. This is shown by the formation of African Universities Research Alliance in Senegal.
7) Encourage our youth to prize knowledge and its development in Africa
Dr. Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma followed with an enlightening talk about the importance of science and the role of women. She discussed the importance of STEM in ensuring the success of Agenda 2063, a program for development for the next 50 years to make Africa united, prosperous, integrated, peaceful, driven by its own citizens and playing a dynamic role in the world. Dr. Zuma emphasized the ned to invest in our people, especially the youth, and to invest in their education and skills. In tandem with this point was the assertion Dr. Zuma made about the need to invest in women.
She provided the surprising fact that there is 60% of arable land on the continent yet it imports $US 80 billion worth of food. Science is critical in terms of rectifying this imbalance. Dr. Zuma also mentioned that African women make up 75% of people working in agriculture on the continent, so science is critical in improving their everyday lives. Another highlight of the session was Professor Salim Karim’s (University of KwaZulu-Natal) forum lecture using graphs and statistics to show how African scholarship and publications compare with the rest of the world. The need to build scientific capacity was reiterated throughout the session.
The second plenary session illuminated the importance of climate change research. Professor Bob Sholes gave a comprehensive presentation detailing the history of the 2 degree Celcius target and the consequences of not paying heed to climate change. This was demonstrated by a graph that showed rising costs of % of Global GDP of climate change. One of the thought provoking points he made was that interior South Africa warms up twice as fast as the rest of the world.
The highlights were Dr. Tanya Abrahamse’s assertion that climate solutions will need an integration of the sciences and social sciences. Dr Ulla Engelmann of the European Commission reinforced this statement by adding that these collaborations and breaking out of disciplinary silos are absolutely crucial to solving problems of climate change.
The afternoon parallel sessions covered a wide array of topics from space science responding to society’s need, women in STEM and philanthropy, fast 3D printing for metal parts for aerospace. The panel organized by the Next Einstein Forum proved to be a success by celebrating African researchers solving societal challenges in Africa and the world.
The panel was moderated by Professor Bernard Slippers. who is an Associate Professor in Genetics at the University of Pretoria and a mentor to so many early career scientists. Professor Slippers is passionate about science development and the role of science in broader society. He has been deeply involved in the global Young Academy movement, being a founding member of the Global Young Academy (GYA) in 2010 and the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) in 2011 and currently serves as a Scientific Programme Committee (SPC) member of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF).
The panel started with Professor Janusz Paweska’s research on Ebola and zoonotic diseases. Professor Paweska has been featured in the news as a leading expert in Africa on Ebola. In his presentation, he showed the history of the Ebola virus and posed the question, what happened in the twenty years when Ebola did not show evidence on the continent? He also illuminated the impact of urbanization and poverty conditions in making diseases like Ebola more conducive.
The most vulnerable populations are most impacted by the outbreaks. Professor Paweska’s research and his team of experts are proof that South African scientists are at the forefront of fighting one of the world’s most dangerous viruses, which kills up to 89% of its victims. Professor Paweska mentioned that his lab in Johannesburg is the only lab that is equipped at bio-safety level four to deal with Ebola in all of Africa.
He showed us pictures of the lab and explained that he and his 11 post-doctoral and MSc students from Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Congo must wear fully enclosed plastic suits with their own oxygen supplies before entering the lab.
The second panelist, NEF Fellow Professor Tolu Oni discussed the upstream determinants of health, including urbanization, poverty and circulatory migration and unpacked “communicable” diseases. She argued that if the patterns of urbanization continues, it will have detrimental effects on health of urban residents. A useful diagram she used was the life cycle model, which demonstrated the interconnections of disease in different stages in life. A baby born to a malnourished mother, may develop deficiencies in adolescence, if not cared for, may be prone to develop other diseases later in life that contributes to the health of her children, demonstrating a vicious cycle leading to the “quadruple burden of disease.”
Professor Oni emphasized that interventions must take into consideration shared risk factors.
The third panelist, also a NEF Fellow, Professor Alta Schutte, followed Dr. Oni’s discussion with her own research on hypertension and health in black populations in Africa. Professor Schutte gave a very clear and concise presentation on the problem of hypertension, why it exists, and solutions to the problem.
Her study involves 1,000 rural and 1000 urban individuals whose health was tracked over time. Professor Schutte provided numerous factors that contribute to hypertension, with a heavy emphasis on environmental factors – factors that can be controlled and mitigated. Some of the factors include urbanization, history of integration of different groups in South Africa and the change in diets brought about by the growth of certain food companies. It was clear that Professor Schutte used rigorous methods to collect her research data.
In the fourth presentation, Professor Thokozani Majozi (the NRF/DST Chair: Sustainable Process Engineering) discussed how he, as an African researcher, is solving global problems for companies like Johnson & Johnson. In his presentation detailing the process of batch processing and optimizing the water-energy nexus, Professor Majozi discussed the ways in which his research helps companies like Johnson & Johnson recover a significant percentage (up to 50%) of the lotion, baby oils and other products they make. This helps them save a ton of money.
His research not only helps maximize batch operations processes, but it also contributes to clean coal technology – ISCC and thermal dynamic efficiency. Another fascinating application of his research was on the water-energy nexus problems. Professor Majozi showed a picture of one of his research in helping the Eskom Krill Power Station maximize energy with minimal water use. This reduces freshwater by 5.5%, which is a huge amount of cost savings for the company and water use for the environment and the world.
In the fifth presentation, Managing Director of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Arun Sharma gave a concise and informative talk about the NEF. He started off the presentation by framing the facts and the need for a STEM platform like the NEF: By 2050, there will be 1.2 billion young people in Africa, making up 36% of the global youth population. He discussed the purpose of the NEF Global Gathering 2016, which is intended to fulfill four main goals.
They include: (1) bridging gaps between science in Africa and the world, (2) advocating for science in Africa and smart science policy, (3) facilitating the transformation of ideas into action, and (4) building a scientific community. He explained the importance of showcasing science and scientists in Africa simply because there is good science in Africa and the world needs Africa to contribute its scientific knowledge and talent.
After the presentations, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, an International Board Member of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and former Foreign Minister of Nigeria, opened the Question and Answer period with brief remarks.
The Q&A period followed with some interesting questions posed by audience members about the application of scientific research in industry. Moderator Professor Bernard Slippers concluded by tying in all the panelists’ presentations, emphasizing that there is indeed much to celebrate in STEM research in Africa, as shown by the panelists and their dedication to excellent work.
The SFSA coordinators did a great job in providing a warm and friendly ambience. The atmosphere was simply wonderful, and gave the feeling of being at a cocktail party amongst friends.
On the second day, I attended a couple of parallel sessions that were quite popular with the crowd. The first one featured NEF Fellow Dr. Tolu Oni on Science and Society. The panel, which focused on science communication and the role of scientists vis a vis the public, generated a thought provoking discussion about science from different perspectives – the academic scientist, the scientist working in the private sector, and science journalists. When one of the audience members asked why scientists purported to be “elite” and so much smarter than people in “society.” this caused a commotion in the room and created further debate amongst audience members and panelists about the topic. The panel session was one of the most interactive and dynamic sessions that I have ever witnessed. It was refreshing to see.
The second panel I attended was on the science agenda for Africa moderated by NEF Fellow Dr. Evelyn Gitau (representing the African Academy of Sciences/Alliance for Accelerating Science in Africa). The panel discussed the various initiatives put forth by the AAS to accelerate creativity and unleash scientific talent in Africa. Chair Professor Berhanu Abegaz gave an informative presentation about (AESA), Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa.
The initiative is a joint effort of the African Academy of Sciences, which is a pan-African organization founded by scientists in Africa. They have 350 fellows in about 45 countries n Africa. Dr. Abegaz also spoke about the Grand Challenges Africa, whereby applicants submit a two-page proposal with bright ideas eligible to win $100,000. The Programme Manager Evelyn Gitau confirmed that they have so far received 365proposals.
This sounds like a fantastic and extremely competitive program for young Africans.
One of the highlights of the panel was watching a video endorsement by the President of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib-Farim. She stressed the importance of focusing on people, places and programs and supporting the right people and investing in their research capacities.
Two memorable quotes include: “Science is instrumental in improving the human condition. It provides the evidence needed for government ot make policies to improve livelihoods” and “This is about African researchers solving African problems using African resources and on African soil.” This encapsulates the mission of the NEF, AAS, and the SFSA.
On the second day, we had a few meetings with old friends and colleagues, had a deliciously catered lunch and headed back to our hotels. Although we were quite exhausted by the end of the conference, we were impressed with the organization of the conference, learned a lot, and made new friends.