South African universities can no longer be excused for failing to increase the number of quality doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in science, technology and indigenous knowledge.

This was debated recently at UKZN’s Medical School campus when Dr Gansen Pillay, Deputy CEO of the National Research Foundation’s Research and Innovation Support and Advancement (RISA), delivered a presentation to scientists in HIV and TB research on funding opportunities at the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa.

In his presentation, which was part of the K-RITH Research Lecture Series, Pillay said the NRF had ambitious objectives to scale up the country’s research enterprise by 2020, proposing to create 198 additional research chairs across all levels of development.

In addition, the aim was to create 20 more Centres of Excellence to up the total to 30, declare seven more National Research Facilities hiking the total to 13, and support 65 new broad collaborative science programmes that would require inter-institutional and regional African research interactions by South African scientists.

He said the NRF’s vision for 2015 was aligned to the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) 10-year plan to help drive South Africa’s transformation towards a knowledge-based economy in which the production and dissemination of knowledge led to economic benefits and enriched all fields of human endeavour.

Pillay said although South Africa was a small player in the international scientific paper trail, the country was a significant player nonetheless. He said the NRF maintained its mandate to promote and support research through funding, human resource development and the provision of the necessary research facilities.

This was necessary to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology including indigenous knowledge and thereby contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of all the people in South Africa.

Pillay outlined a host of opportunities available for the next generation of emerging and established researchers at all 23 South African universities.

‘The one thing that we cannot compromise at the NRF is excellence. Excellence and quality is the cornerstone of our core business.’ He said that through its high-end equipment and facilities, the NRF was able to attract “the best scientists in the world” to the country’s doorstep and it was important to note that these facilities were national property and an extension of South African universities.

Pillay said it was alarming that only 34 percent of university staff in South Africa had doctoral degrees. He said this needed urgent attention if the universities’ core business was to produce more PhDs for the country. ‘A postdoctoral culture can change the entire scope of an institution.’

The NRF was said to have many opportunities for new generation researchers (masters and PhD) but one of the challenges was retaining “good” students at a postgraduate level of study, especially as some came from poor backgrounds and were expected to find jobs and put food on the table as soon as they completed their undergraduate qualifications.

Pillay mentioned that the NRF also had postdoctoral fellowships such as the Thuhtuka postdoctoral track available for emerging researchers who could either be members of staff or students.

He said there was competitive support for unrated researchers and announced that the NRF would soon be launching a career rewards programme.

A set of opportunities were listed as available for established researchers including an incentive programme for rated researchers, benefits for community engagement research, mobility grants for staff and collaborative research grants.

Pillay said it was prestigious to become an NRF-rated researcher, citing the example of UKZN’s Professor William Bishai, Director for K-RITH and an A-rated NRF researcher, who continues to drive excellence in TB and HIV research.

Pillay encouraged the scientists present to apply for relevant NRF funding, saying that it was important to publish in quality journals and not fear rejection when applying for funding. ‘I believe if your research is good and you are passionate enough about it, you are bound to receive funding for it.’

He said, NRF’s strategic investment henceforth would include the DST/NRF South African Research Chairs Initiative, a Centre for Excellence Programme, a National Equipment Programme, National Nanotechnology Equipment Programme, and an institutional engagement partnership development programme.

‘The idea is to bring highly qualified, passionate and like-minded people together with ideas that can be funded.’

UKZN’s College of Health Sciences also offers fee remission for PhD studies, scholarships for masters studies and funding to support the drive to expand its research strategy. This information is available on the web at:http://chs.ukzn.ac.za/PostgraduateStudies.aspx

author email : memelal@ukzn.ac.za