International collaboration in Science and Technology is a real challenge for South Africa

CAAST-NET website. When the European Commission set out a new strategic European framework for international science and technology cooperation in 2008, it emphatically stated that “Europe cannot cooperate with all countries on all topics.” Selecting research topics and partners for an optimal investment of resources was central to the proposed strategy. For South Africa, with much smaller budgets than the European Union for international collaboration, making and getting the choice right is even more critical.

Since South Africa’s democratisation in 1994, it has developed a rich portfolio of international science and technology partnerships, particularly with the EU.

South Africa today ranks only behind the US, the Russian Federation, China and India as a non-EU participant in the Seventh Framework Programme. South Africa complements its Framework participation with bilateral cooperation with such countries as Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland. These collaborations help foster the internationalisation of South African research, critically needed after the country’s isolation during apartheid.

But cooperation no longer follows the traditional north-south pattern espoused by the former South African regime. Democratic South Africa’s foreign policy priority is to participate in and support African regional cooperation. In 2003 South Africa was one of the driving forces in setting up the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology and became its first chair.

Many African cooperation programmes aim to build capacity as part of a research-for-development focus. South-south cooperation with other emerging economies has also become prominent. The India Brazil South Africa partnership, for example, includes active collaboration in biotechnology, space and nanotechnology.

Also in international science and technology policy forums, South African participation in various forums straddles policy and ideological divides. The country has long been one of the most active non-member participants in the Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and later this year it will chair the Centre for Science and Technology of the Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries.

All this has significantly benefited South African science over the years, but limited resources have made international cooperation either inefficient or unsustainable. The result has often been fragmentation and lack of real impact. Heavy commitment to international cooperation carries huge transaction costs, creating administrative burdens and frustration.

So, South Africa has to balance international cooperation with its national science and technology programmes, notably those directed at the implementation of South Africa’s ten-year innovation plan. International cooperation for its own sake, not grounded in national priorities, is clearly an unnecessary and unaffordable luxury.

Choices, some difficult, had to be made, taking into account the size of partners’ available resources, the potential to win international funding for South Africa, and the opportunity to access unique knowledge and expertise to complement national capacities. There are no easy answers, and such decisions have to be based on a complex set of dynamically linked and weighted scientific, political, economic and development criteria.

South Africa’s experience is that careful consideration of the drivers for various partnerships permits synergy between them to be exploited. A good example is South Africa’s participation in global astronomy programmes, where basic research cooperation between South Africa and Europe has contributed to new global knowledge generation.

This collaboration is, however, also complemented by collaboration with other African countries, chiefly targeting the training of young astronomers and often delivering real socio-economic benefit through the location of research infrastructures in remote areas in those countries. This concurrent pursuit of excellence and cohesion objectives is also an emerging policy challenge in the European Research Area.

International cooperation delivers greatest impact when it is focused on and aligned with strategic priorities and frameworks. It thrives if, concurrently, dynamic synergy between different initiatives can be exploited. As the cliché goes, science knows no borders.

The leitmotif for South Africa’s foreign policy agenda therefore also applies to the objectives of the country’s international scientific cooperation: working for a better South Africa, in a better Africa, in a better world, which of course includes a better Europe.

Daan du Toit is Minister-Counselor for Science and Technology, at the South African mission to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. This article originally appeared in Research Europe, and is reprinted with permission. If you have an opinion and would like to express it in the Newsletter, e-mail Anne Taylor of Research Africa on at@research-africa.net.

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