Programme Director, Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director-General of Research Development and Support; Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Prof. Andrew Crouch; Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Prof. Cheryl Potgieter; Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld; Directors of the Centre of Excellence in Human Development, Prof. Linda Richter and Prof. Shane Norris; Researchers, students and representatives of the CoE partner institutions; Representatives of the NRF and DST; Members of the media; Esteemed guests; Ladies and gentlemen.
Today we meet to launch the new Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Human Development, hosted jointly by the Universities of the Witwatersrand and KwaZulu-Natal. What a pleasure it is to speak at an event that promotes collaboration rather than competition between researchers and institutions. This is also the first centre of excellence for the social sciences and humanities, which makes it a particularly special occasion.
Centres of excellence have proved to be effective for promoting the collaboration and networking of researchers across institutions and disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of long-term research questions, and have therefore become a common research funding instrument in countries like Australia, Canada and the USA. South Africa, too, is using centres of excellence to concentrate existing capacity and resources on locally relevant and internationally competitive long-term projects, boosting research excellence and capacity development.
The DST-NRF centres of excellence concept has its origins in the 2002 National Research and Development Strategy, which identified the need to create centres and networks of excellence in science and technology, including in the social sciences, as a key component of the human capital and transformation dimensions of government policy. This notion is emphasised in the 2008 Ten-Year Innovation Plan and I am happy to say that there are now a total of 14 centres of excellence in our country.
What is more, these centres are succeeding in stimulating sustained research excellence while generating highly qualified human resource capacity, and are having a significant effect on key national and global areas of knowledge. This is borne out by two reviews of the programme. In 2008 a midterm review was done of the first seven CoEs established since the inception of the programme in 2004; and last year a five-year programme review was carried out.
We are still finalising the processing of the 2013 review findings, but it is clear that the centres’ performance is consistent with what the 2008 mid-term review found. The CoEs had performed satisfactorily in meeting their mandates in the five key performance areas of research, student training, networking, service provision and knowledge brokerage. They had also succeeded in retaining high-level research expertise in the country while building a new cadre of young researchers. They had demonstrated an upward trajectory in the impact of the research papers that were published, and were succeeding in using government research funds to raise additional funds from other sources.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you are aware that this launch is the fifth public launch of a new DST-NRF centre of excellence this month. Since the beginning of April the Department of Science and Technology has presided over the launches of the CoE in Mathematics and Statistical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand; the CoE in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University; and the CoE in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape. Finally, the CoE in Integrated Mineral and Energy Resource Analysis will be launched on Thursday, 24 April at the University of Johannesburg.
The research areas of the new centres of excellence are significant. While academic independence is important, such independence should not be divorced from the challenges of the day, and the department took government priorities articulated in various strategies and policies into account before establishing the new CoEs.
The CoE in Human Development is no exception. Internationally, the importance of human development is clear from the Millennium Development Goals and the discussion towards the Sustainable Development Goals, on which the United Nations development agenda will be based from 2015. In South Africa, the major human development challenges facing our country, particularly poverty and inequality, are highlighted in the National Planning Commission’s 2011 diagnostic overview, as well as the 2012 National Development Plan.
The success of government policies, investments and interventions in human development depends to a great extent on the research evidence on which they are based. The CoE in Human Development will play a vital role in this regard by bringing exceptional scholars together to share their knowledge and expertise, and to conduct high-quality multidisciplinary and inter-institutional research.
A key and widely accepted measure of human development is the United Nations Human Development Index, which is used to assess countries’ relative levels of socio-economic development. In everyday parlance, the index gives an idea of peoples’ ability to live a long and healthy life, to communicate, to participate in the community, and to afford a decent standard of living. It is a composite of life expectancy at birth, per capita income, and level of education. This last measure is based on the adult literacy rate and the average number of years of schooling of adults.
The main challenges facing children in South Africa arise from high unemployment, poverty and associated social problems; family fracture and instability; and parent and caregiver disengagement and depression. Significant numbers of children have a poor start in life. They are exposed to violence and other causes of stress that disrupt their evolving mechanisms of self regulation, and they have too few opportunities for the cognitive and social learning that supports formal education and social integration.
The National Development Plan makes the most explicit connection between childhood and South Africa’s socio-economic aspirations. In particular, Chapters 9 and 10 highlight early child development as a top priority in improving the quality of education and long-term prospects for future generations in productivity and health.
Overwhelming evidence points to the formative stages of pregnancy and early childhood as a critical foundation for a good life – health, educational accomplishment, productivity, personal adjustment and social integration. The global community recognises that the realisation of children’s potential to become healthy, productive, and creative adults is central to sustainable socio-economic development.
The Centre of Excellence in Human Development merges the existing research strengths of the University of the Witwatersrand in the area of child development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s research strengths in development, livelihoods and health.
The CoE will innovatively combine multidisciplinary expertise of excellent and established scholars and research groups working on human development to enable a better understanding of human development challenges in South Africa, thus enhancing our ability to overcome these challenges in the most cost-effective way, and to give all South Africans a decent life.
I now declare this CoE officially launched, wishing the research team all the best in their work to inform South Africa’s policies through evidence-based research.
I thank you.
SOURCE: SOUTH AFRICAN OFFICIAL NEWS