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New centre of excellence in scientometrics, STI policy

A centre of excellence in scientometrics and science, technology and innovation policy was launched last week at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. It is one of five new centres of excellence announced by the government in February, bringing the total to 14 countrywide.

The new Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and STI policy is housed in Stellenbosch's Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, or CREST, which was created in 1995 and is directed by Professor Johann Mouton, a prolific researcher and supervisor.

Mouton said four main thematic areas had been identified for the new centre: science, technology and innovation indicators; STI policy for development; human development for STI; and science communication, evaluation and impact.

"Assessment of the social impact of research (as opposed to the scientific impact of research) represents unchartered territory," the launch booklet pointed out.

CREST will be the lead host, with Tshwane University of Technology co-hosting through its Institute for Economic Research on Innovation.

The Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town and the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands are partners, along with the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators at the Human Sciences Research Council.

The centre of excellence is the fourth to be hosted by Stellenbosch, with the others being in biomedical tuberculosis research, invasion biology, and epidemiological modelling and analysis.

Centres of excellence initiative

The Centres of Excellence Programme was established in 2004 by the Department of Science and Technology, or DST, and is operated by the National Research Foundation, or NRF. It is aimed at promoting collaborative and interdisciplinary research among research-performing institutions, and providing high-end skills development in priority research areas.

A Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand was also launched last week, and later this month the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the universities of the Western Cape and Pretoria will be established.

They will be followed by the Centre for Integrated Mineral and Energy Resource Analyses at the University of Johannesburg, and the Centre for Child Development and Livelihoods at the universities of KwaZulu-Natal and the Witwatersrand.

Naledi Pandor, former science and technology minister, nearly doubled the budget for centres of excellence from R69.5 million (US$8.4 million) in the 2012-13 financial year to R131 million in 2013-14.

In 2012-13, the centres of excellence collectively produced 568 peer-reviewed journal articles, 197 conference publications and 22 book chapters.

Last month the government also announced 54 new research chairs at universities across the country as part of the South African Research Chairs Initiative, or SARChI. It was created in 2006 to strengthen the research and innovation capacity of universities and to create a critical mass of world-class scholars who will train future generations of scholars and graduates to support a knowledge-based economy.

The new STI centre

Mouton said the new centre of excellence intended to develop a robust theoretical and credible body of work to contribute to international scholarship in science and technology statistics. Reliable data would be used to ascertain the state and performance of science and technology in South Africa.

"In addition to its research priorities, the centre of excellence will strengthen and expand its masters and doctoral programmes in science and technology studies and consolidate national information systems in these areas," said Mouton.

The centre gathers together hefty experience and expertise in the fields of bibliometrics, scientometrics, science and innovation policy, higher education studies, the sociology of science, science communication, research evaluation and research impact assessment.

In the past five years its constituent centres have produced more than 55 peer-reviewed journal articles, 33 books and chapters, 145 scholarly presentations and more than 100 reports. In addition, 10 masters and doctoral students graduated from CREST's programme in science and technology studies, which currently has 36 postgraduate students enrolled.

Launching the new centre Dereck Hanekom, minister of science and technology, said it must build on existing capacity in scientometrics and innovation.

"We are confident that this centre of excellence will not only lead to the advancement of knowledge and human capital development, but more importantly it will help to increase the efficiency of our country's use of its knowledge resources."

Hanekom said the centre should foster additional capacity and "take South Africa's ability to understand and fine-tune its innovation environment and policy to a new level".

Centres of excellence created so far had done an "exceptional job" in building national networks of scholars, allowing the construction of strong centres of science, and developing international links. But it was time to ask exactly how well they had performed and their impact on the quality and quantity of research conducted in South Africa.

"The irony is that, while scientometrics played an important role in encouraging government to initiate the centres of excellence programme, it is only now that the programme is introducing a centre of excellence in scientometrics.

"A further irony is that this new centre of excellence will be expected to provide evidence of the value of its own work and that of the other centres of excellence, in informing the further development of STI policy," said Hanekom.

The centre would be expected to provide objective evidence to enable better understanding of policy questions and choices. "The critical interface of this evidence to our STI activities will be a most important contribution to meeting the critical policy challenges of the day."
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