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‘Government believes that science and technology is pivotal for the country to successfully assuage unemployment, poverty and underdevelopment’ Nanotechnology Report: DST

I spent a considerable amount of time reading the Nanotechnology Strategy Report and several other items such as the Deputy Minister’s address to Mintek and the Minister’s speech in Parliament on his budget debate. The Strategy is an important document, which was compiled by a team of researchers in the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Environment with consultants from industry and universities. It was approved by the cabinet for an increased allocation of R450 million to launch the strategy over three years.

It is designed to catapult SA science and technology into the forefront of international research activity by way of this exciting all embracing arena of ‘nanotechnology’. A nanometre is 10 angstrom units, the unit of atoms and molecules. It is well below the wavelength of visible light and it is only by virtue of the high energy microprobes and the tunnelling microscope that visual impressions of nano-sized particles are possible. The report covers almost every facet relevant to South African science and technology. This is not surprising since the classical chemistry and physics approach does the same but without actually seeing the atoms and molecules.

The reports refers to:  replication of the DNA molecule  molecular microbiology  purification of water and removal of pathogenic microorganisms such as cholera  the purification of mine and industrial effluents  toxic air pollutants  solar cells  high performance materials for the mining industry  Sasol and other industrial catalysts  fuel cells  the production storage and transport of alternative forms of energy  paint films, surface coatings, fillers for paper and plastics  a cure for cancer based on gold  the combating of Aids, TB, malaria and chronic diseases and  medical advances using nano sensors.

The strategy aims to introduce a new era in multidisciplinary coordination and inter institute, industrial and international collaboration and the promotion of innovative thinking. It predicts the production of new products for export globally, new industries and the consequent creation of jobs and the reduction of poverty. Academia is to be reorganized to handle this new and exciting era of scientific innovation. Maybe the Journal should publish the Strategy Report as I think it is compulsory reading for all those who are involved in providing skills, training courses and conferences on the new technologies to enable engineers to comply with the law in collecting credits to meet the satisfaction of ECCSA.

Likewise, I would say that all researchers looking for government grants or support from the Innovation Fund administered by the DST must study this report carefully. Perhaps ‘froth flotation’, a favourite research topic, should assume the more erudite name as ‘nanolayer aerophilc surface activation’ to make it kosher in the eyes of big brother. Or perhaps we could produce a nanocarbon to replace the declining availability of natural gold carbon. An allocation of money to the universities and statutory bodies is to be welcomed even if based on a buzzword. It is not clear to me how much of the budget will end up in research activities as there are suspicious items such as ‘characterization centres’ taking up a good slice of the funding.

Is the strategy really going to catapult science and technology in South Africa in the forefront of scientific eminence? There is a big backlog to make up. Already the ubiquitous American firms have laid claim to brand names such as ‘Nanomembranes’ for treatment of polluted water of many kinds. There is much in the approved strategy which can be followed up immediately as application development of imported products and processes. There are, for example, processes on offer for treating waste liquors in the paper industry. Thus sponsors like Sappi are likely to be well satisfied with the outcomes. It is difficult to predict which of the innovative concepts are likely to become breakthroughs leading to the first bite at local industries and exportable products. Only the gold cancer cure and the gold catalyst seem to be in this category of truly innovative concepts.

The solar cell reference probably relates to the work of Professor Alberts, which was started many years ago and seems to have a good success probability. There certainly could be prestigious successes in time but for most of the other examples quoted it will be almost impossible to beat well-established developers to the international markets. Frankly it is a long stretch to visualize the large number of industries being established to export to global markets and providing the large number of job opportunities mentioned in almost every part of the report, but surprisingly not even order of magnitude figures for job creation are anywhere indicated. In the conclusions, cluster industries are proposed cantered around water, health and energy on one hand and mining, chemical and bio-processing on the other.

The content and interaction of these elements has not been discussed in the report and I cannot deduce how much the potential depends on nanotechnology and how much is conventional activity. At the head of this Comment is a key quotation from the report and I couldn’t agree more, and unquestionably this objective is the highest priority in selecting research activities. The nanotechnology focus is, in my understanding, most unlikely to make more than a dent in the problem of the unemployed, low-skilled impoverished masses. The new industries envisaged, if they come about, will be automated and demand highly skilled workers. The big news was that the Minister planned to increase expenditure by Government on scientific research to 1% of GDP by 2008. This will bring SA in line with many first world countries.

At present this will amount to R12 billion a year. The second disappointment is that no mention is made of the paucity of qualified personnel suitable for this top-level scientific research. Is it not time to do a meaningful survey of research scientists and engineers available in South Africa? When last I attempted this some 15 years ago, the numbers were pitifully low and I wonder if there is any reason to think that these numbers have dramatically improved. The proposed R12 billion research budget implies a minimum of 12 000 postgrads plus technical assistance.

This is for government sponsored research, excluding industries staff and sponsored research complement. No strategic plan, no matter how erudite, can be complete without a manpower assessment in quality and numbers. But the strategic report talks about an explosion in human resources as a result of the nanotechnology plan. Should the Department of Education not be brought into the strategic planning in terms of the foundation of manpower planning—the science and maths teachers? Glossary of terms  Buzzword—Erudite phraseology for prestigious use by non technical politicians and financial decision makers to enable them to award generous funding of projects  Bandwagons—Buzzword funded projects  Breakthroughs—Outcomes of prestigious projects that have proven innovative and have a beneficial impact.  R.E. Robinson July 2007