South Africa is an excellent place to be pursuing a research career, because of many opportunities and many research institutions and science councils in which students can pursue their careers and future job prospects.
These are the words of minister of higher education, science and innovation, Dr. Blande Nzimande, who was addressing a virtual conference of Alliance for Collaboration on Climate and Earth System Sciences (ACCESS) on Global Change.
ACCESS is a Department of Science and Innovation and National Research Foundation-funded global change programme, hosted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
The aim of the conference was to introduce 3rd and 4th years (honours) and undergraduate students to the concept of Earth System Science by exploring the reasons why the Earth is habitable with a particular emphasis on the uniqueness of the southern African region.
Nzimande said the significance of the conference lies in the fact that it is taking place at a time of “immense global and local upheaval, uncertainty and turbulence caused by the new fourfold crises of COVID-19, deepening economic crisis, the multiple crises of socio-economic sustainability for families, households and communities, and climate change, which is our focus today.”
Added Nzimande: “This is what the ACCESS programme is all about – conducting scientific research to solve concrete and practical problems, alongside personal development and the establishment of a network of emerging researchers who will become colleagues in the future.”
The key component of ACCESS is a Habitable Planet Workshop (HPW) Programme, which works from schools to postgraduate level and aims to increase the number of students participating in science research nationally. It places specific focus on attracting more black and female students from disadvantaged backgrounds, by creating a safe, supportive and nurturing learning environment that many of Historically Back Institutions (HBIs) still lacks.
“The fact that this conference is organised exclusively by black South African (and South African-based) science students is itself symbolically important in terms of our project to decolonise higher education,” said minister Nzimande.
He said by supporting students who have no Internet access at home, the conference is making a social contribution to those who have felt cut off from academic institutions, research and studies by the coronavirus pandemic. By furthering our science knowledge and networks the conference contributes to development of the knowledge economy.
This year’s collaborative effort from HPW Alumni represents many South African higher education institutions, including the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the University of Fort Hare, the University of Zululand, the University of Venda, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Johannesburg.
The other major highlight of the conference was to provide a platform for students to present their research findings completed in 2020 and also to network and learn from one another in a way that has not been possible for most of the year due to COVID–19.
Given the technological advances in the world and the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, said Nzimande, the world now recognises the importance of a modern graduate having not just a degree, but unique experiences and skills, including soft skills.
According to the minister, since 2010, the HPW has completed thirty-one (31) undergraduate workshops for over 1000 participants, trained several hundred students for leadership roles and assisted student leaders in delivering more than twenty schools engagement programmes across the country’s nine provinces.
He commended HPW alumni and leaders for organising the conference. “You have done a great job by showing leadership and initiative. I must say that your effort will go a long away to change the manner in which science will be perceived by future generations because they will have an opportunity to experience an organised science engagement platform that will help them to make informed career choices, particularly in the scientific space,” said Nzimande.
He said in order for South Africa to prosper, we need trained people – and the field of Earth Systems Science forms an important part of this training. He said South Africa is harvesting the benefits of small but effective science systems following its investments in critical research and innovation areas.
He said the DSI has been mobilising across its entities and the entities of sister departments, with a specific aim of fast-tracking the government’s response to the skills revolution in our country. He also added that the key mandate of his department is to “provide an enabling environment for the national system of innovation (NSI) to deliver solutions that address the socio-economic and developmental needs and imperatives of the country”.
He said that his department is currently conducting the ‘Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation Institutional Landscape Review’ “to determine the future direction and infrastructure requirements of the country’s post-school education and STI landscape.
He said he recently announced a ‘National List of Occupations in High Demand’ in the country. The list, he said, reflects the work undertaken by his department through the Labour Market Intelligence Project, to support human resource development in our country.
“In this list, we have identified 345 occupations that are in high demand out of a total of 1 500 registered in DHET’s Organising Framework for Occupations,” he said. The list, said Nzimande, is updated every two years and is an important step towards helping us understand the needs of the labour market better and signal opportunities where our students and graduates are likely to stand a better chance of finding employment.
He said the list tells the country which occupations are likely to have such vacancies and which occupations are likely to grow due to new investments, especially by government. Nzimande said many of the occupations on the list can be associated with key areas and sectors identified as crucial for the Reconstruction and Recovery Plan announced by President Ramaphosa. These include the digital economy, energy, infrastructure development, manufacturing, tourism and agriculture, and careers such as data scientist, web developer, computer network technician, electrical engineer, concentrated solar power process controller, mechatronic technician, toolmaker, gaming worker, crop produce analyst and agricultural scientist, just to name a few.
The minister said the conference is a good example of the kind of initiative required to raise awareness and optimism about the future of scientific leadership in South Africa. He said this will help to design and to channel our training and skills to the areas which the economy needs most.
Nzimande said the National Development Plan calls for an increase in the number of PhD graduates and that science graduates are very critical in knowledge generation. Initiatives such as ACCESS are important in achieving the goals laid out in the NDP and in enhancing knowledge generation, he added.