South Africa-British research chair initiative launched

Three first bilateral research chairs between South Africa and the United Kingdom were launched during the Going Global 2016 conference last week. Britain’s Newton Fund is contributing £300,000 (US$434,000) per chair over three years, with the funding matched by the National Research Foundation in South Africa.

The chairs in food security and political science follow a bilateral chair with Switzerland in global environmental health last year, and in future there will be chairs with Germany in nano science and advanced materials.

The Newton Fund South Africa-UK Bilateral Chairs initiative is a joint programme with the National Research Foundation implemented through the British Council, which held its flagship Going Global higher education conference in Cape Town, South Africa, from 3-5 May.

The initiative aims to strengthen research in South Africa and the UK, promote international exchange and cooperation and increase the quality and quantity of masters and PhD graduates.

The Newton Fund, established in 2014, promotes the economic development and welfare of poor people in partnering countries through science and innovation partnerships.

The bilateral focus is an expansion of the South African Research Chairs Initiative, or SARChI, which began in 2006 with 21 chairs and has grown to 198 chairs in 10 years with a yearly budget of R404 million (US$27 million).

“SARChI is a huge opportunity for our country and our continent. It nurtures research talent,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of science and technology, launching the initiative. “This is vital for our future prosperity.”

“It encourages the best scientists to work in South Africa. It encourages the best to stay at home,” she pointed out, adding that by offering joint appointments, universities had begun to help mitigate the devastating impacts of the brain drain to developed countries.

The research chairs in food security were awarded to Dr Stephen Devereux of the University of the Western Cape and Professor Michael John Roberts of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and in political theory to Professor Lawrence Hamilton of the University of the Witwatersrand.


Funding for SARChI comes from both government and the private sector, with every R1 of public funding being raised by R2 by industry.

Pandor said the Department of Science and Technology spent R1.5 billion on the initiative between 2006 and 2014, when it had 154 chairs. The investment was boosted to R3 billion from foreign sources, government departments and private and industry funders – which was a “huge vote of public confidence” in the programme.

SARChI supports established scientists conducting frontier research and helps to train the next generation of researchers, said Pandor.

Each research chair has more than five times the number of post-doctoral fellows of other established researchers, and is able on average to supervise three times the number of honours, masters and doctoral students.

One of the new research chairs, Dr Stephen Devereux, is connected to a centre of excellence in food security that is jointly hosted by the universities of the Western Cape and Pretoria and is a network of 12 local universities, seven international partners and two research councils.

He said at the launch that even with South Africa’s extensive social protection system, food insecurity and malnutrition remained highly prevalent, with an estimated one in four people food insecure. The chair will look at improving the impact of social protection on hunger.

International cooperation

Pandor stressed the importance of international cooperation to South Africa’s national research and innovation programmes and strategies. South Africa and the UK have had a bilateral science and technology agreement since 1995, and have numerous partnerships at country and university levels between academics and researchers.

She noted that South Africa was the fifth most successful country in accessing European Union Framework Programme research funding, partnering with scientists in the UK more than any other country.

Under the Newton Fund, launched in 2014, South Africa-UK partnership activities will focus on public health, environment and food security, and science and technology capacity building.

Laura Harris, Newton Fund officer at the British High Commission, said that attaching the Newton Fund brand to a premier South African government programme not only helped to promote the fund, but also “boosted the overall profile of the UK-SA bilateral relationship by illustrating shared commitment to co-investment and research excellence”.