SOUTHERN AFRICA: Regional research networks vital

Effective regional research networks are vital if Southern African Development Community countries are to stand any chance of competing in a globalised world in which the currency is knowledge, argued Southern African Regional Universities' Association CEO Piyushi Kotecha (pictured) at a recent workshop. While only a few nations have functional networks or reasonable bandwidth for research, there have been exciting improvements in connectivity.

Addressing the high performance computing meeting attended by SADC representatives, Kotecha said while investing in super-computing facilities in all Southern African countries was "unthinkable", pooling resources and having an "efficient, high speed inter-connected regional network with a conducive policy environment" would enable countries to share such expensive resources.

She urged SADC governments to realise that regional collaboration and inter-connection in the ICT, research and science and technology areas should "trump national interests".

Referring to studies conducted in Europe, Kotecha said the development of national research networks, which link up to a regional network, are increasingly regarded as "an asset for economic growth and prosperity" and a "source of innovation which provides fast and widespread technology transfer to society and industry".

Countries with the capacity to generate, share and use knowledge, including indigenous knowledge, have a competitive advantage, she said.

However, a 2010 review of ICT in universities produced as part of the South African Regional Universities' Association (Sarua) leadership dialogue series showed that of the 14 SADC countries, only two - South Africa and Malawi - had functional national research networks. Most other countries were still in the process of establishing such networks.

The review, ICT Infrastructure and Connectivity: New capacity, new opportunities, also found that only universities in South Africa and Mauritius could be said to have reasonable bandwidth for research purposes.

It highlighted the fact that most SADC countries have limited national telecommunication facilities, pay high bandwidth costs and suffer a history of limited investment in ICT infrastructure in public universities.

In addition, the review revealed a lack of coherent policies, strategies and plans for research networking and the absence of national regulatory frameworks to promote either the role of national networks or cross-border connectivity for networking purposes.

But there are encouraging signs of a shift, said Kotecha. The recent establishment with government funding of the South African National Research Network (SANReN), for example, had already connected universities in Gauteng province, thereby accelerating innovation, collaboration and research and development, she said.

In addition, there have been improvements in connectivity in the SADC region. Last year, all SADC countries except for the Democratic Republic of Congo, had high capacity fibre connections to their neighbours and onward to the world. The region also had had access to three submarine fibre networks and costs of connectivity had dropped dramatically.

By 2012, said Kotecha, all SADC countries will have fibre connectivity to at least two fibre networks and prices are expected to be near developed world prices. The region will also be connected to Europe by at least six submarine cables, while landlocked countries are likely to have extensive national fibre backbones with high-capacity cross-border links.

Kotecha called these developments in telecommunications infrastructure a "tremendous opportunity" for universities and for the SADC region.

"In practical terms, this means that SADC countries can participate in the establishment of emerging research facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope and utilise the services of high performance computing facilities in South Africa, contribute to building their own knowledge stocks and collaborate with researchers in Africa and abroad.

"It also means universities in SADC, for first time ever, have an opportunity to access global research facilities," she told the gathering.

Other developments which could provide impetus for research networks in Africa include the recent establishment of the regional network Ubuntunet Alliance, which currently promotes ICT access and usage among national research networks in East and Southern Africa, the recent formation of the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WaCREN), and the interest shown by the EU through the AfricaConnect project to provide some stimulus funds for African national research networks.

"The time has come to act, rather than talk," she said. Citing the examples of Russia, Europe, Morocco, Turkey and Singapore, she said all over the developed world the development of high-speed connectivity for academic and research purposes was "a result of direct government intervention and support".

At a regional level, government and other donor funding was critical for the establishment of regional networks, she argued. "The EU provides a good example, where GEANT, the premier research and academic network is largely EU funded".

As part of its commitment to boosting ICT infrastructure, Sarua has proposed a partnership between SADC governments, the private sector, donor community and regional higher education sector to develop a cross-border programme for ICT in higher education aimed at building national and regional research and academic networks to support education, science and technology research and innovation.

Sarua has undertaken to work voluntarily with SADC science and technology leaders and the SADC commission to discuss an ICT infrastructure programme for higher education.

The association will also work with relevant roleplayers on a programme to promote regional research using existing infrastructure for improved research activity and assist in the development of a programme for online academic research publication and dissemination.

From Sarua's perspective, Kotecha said the most exciting aspect of discussions around a possible regional high performance computing facility was the fact that such a facility would open up opportunities for more complex research into some of the region's most pressing challenges, and provide universities and research institutes with the chance to connect with national, regional and global research teams.

She called for a supercomputer project as part of a larger programme to invest in research in the region, to support universities to become research-intensive.