SA looks to Switzerland in sci-tech push

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South Africa and Switzerland are set to deepen their collaboration in science, technology and innovation (STI) following the renewal of a fruitful STI co-operation agreement between the countries.

Signed in Bern last week, the agreement will, among others, see exchange visits of scientists, researchers and scholars, the sharing of scientific and technical knowledge, and the hosting of bilateral STI seminars and courses.

The agreement was renewed during the fifth meeting of the South Africa-Switzerland Joint Committee, an intergovernmental structure that was created after the bilateral agreement on scientific and technological cooperation was first signed in 2007.

Its function is to make decisions and review progress in joint work on STI.

4IR focus

In March, the South African government said the country will follow a new roadmap for science and technology, after Cabinet approved the new white paper on STI.

Last September, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) put out the draft policy document for public comment, noting it sets out a long-term direction for government to ensure a growing role for science, tech and innovation.

This new roadmap, according to the DST, identifies the fourth industrial revolution as a key focus, placing STI at the centre of the country's development agenda.

SA and Switzerland have enjoyed a productive relationship in STI for well over a decade. The countries have carried out a number of joint research projects, co-operated on the Swiss-South Africa Business Development Programme, and established two bilateral research chairs.

South African and Swiss universities also have long-standing student exchange programmes in place.

Switzerland supports SA’s objective of establishing a coherent and inclusive national system of innovation to catalyse economic growth and employment, create livelihoods at grassroots level, and strengthen competitiveness.

Last week, a South African delegation toured Switzerland to gain exposure to the Swiss innovation ecosystem – which includes industry-to-market mechanisms and innovation clusters – and identify new areas of potential collaboration.

The multi-stakeholder delegation included officials from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and its entities, as well as representatives from universities and start-up companies.

The “SA innovation mission” visited universities of applied sciences in Bern, Lucerne and Zurich.

According to the DSI, the Swiss universities of applied sciences play a key role in the innovation ecosystem by conducting both fundamental and applied research, and offering both technical training and traditional university degrees.

It notes SA’s vocational training institutions could benefit from co-operation with these institutions. Last year, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts signed a memorandum of understanding with Stellenbosch University for the exchange of master's students working in the field of energy.

The university has also undertaken to collaborate with the University of Venda on a summer school focusing on energy-harvesting facade systems under the leadership of the DSI.

During their visit, the South African delegation also took part in a number of information-sharing engagements on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Participants learned first-hand how linkages are formed between companies and academic institutions, with the former providing input on curriculum development to promote the nurturing of skills relevant to industry.

A visit to the canton of Basel-Stadt revealed a dynamic economic region in which the city authorities have created an enabling environment for entrepreneurship. The region, with a population numbering about 200 000, has over 10 000 start-up companies focused on growing the economy and creating new knowledge for societal growth. Its life sciences industry is headed by companies such as Novartis, Roche, Lonza, Bayer and Syngenta.

The participants were unanimous that exposure of this kind is invaluable as SA works to build an ecosystem that harnesses science, technology and innovation for sustainable development, inclusive growth and a better life for all South Africans.

Bilateral programme

In a statement, the Swiss government says for the next phase of the bilateral programme, and to enhance cooperation, the Swiss National Science Foundation and South African National Research Foundation are negotiating a direct co-operation arrangement in the shape of a lead agency agreement.

It explains the agreement would allow researchers in Switzerland to submit a joint research project developed with a partner in SA to just one of the research promotion organisations.

It believes this procedure would significantly reduce administrative costs and facilitate bilateral cooperation.

In addition, the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, in conjunction with the University of Basel, acts as leading house for Sub-Saharan Africa.

As such, it regularly offers instruments for researchers interested in co-operating with partners from that region.

One such example is the Swiss-South African Business Development Programme, which aims to strengthen the entrepreneurial know-how of researchers and innovators in marketing their research projects.

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