Govt boosts research development in SA

Read time 4min 40sec
The Square Kilometre Array will see SA require considerable data centre facilities and an increased supply of data scientists.
The Square Kilometre Array will see SA require considerable data centre facilities and an increased supply of data scientists.

Over the next three years, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) will invest R60 million towards the establishment of a regional data centre and a national e-science teaching and training platform.

According to the DST, in partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), it decided to establish the two cyber infrastructure projects.

The initiatives are aimed at addressing the growing demand for big data facilities in research and business, as well as boost the local universities that will take the lead in these initiatives, says the department.

The DST also notes the investment will further the implementation of the National Integrated Cyberinfrastructure System (NICIS). Currently, the NICIS is made up of the Centre for High Performance Computing, the South African National Research Network, and the Data-Intensive Research Initiative of South Africa.

"The DST believes cooperation of South African universities and research councils on such strategic matters is important for the country's future. The big data revolution involves a transition in which data becomes a new resource for economic development, and success or failure depends on the capacity to manage and manipulate massive volumes of data in order to extract information."

Storage conundrum

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which is planned to start in 2017/18, will see SA require large data centre facilities to store all the data that will be generated when the radio telescope is live.

Pundits and research analysts have raised concerns that the lack of data centre facilities in the country will result in data being shipped and hosted overseas.

The department also previously noted no final plans have been formulated regarding domestic data management services and infrastructure for SKA.

According to the DST, the first project will involve the establishment of an initial regional data centre (or node) - others could follow - that will eventually form a national network, supporting a wide range of data-intensive scientific activities as part of NICIS. The location of the centre has yet to be selected.

The department says: "This data centre will be a shared resource, focused initially on astronomy and bioinformatics, supporting major initiatives such as the MeerKAT and SKA and the DST's bio-economy strategy.

"A consortium, led by the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been awarded this project."

University boost

The second project centres on the establishment of a national e-science teaching and training platform.

This facility is intended to lead the development of suitable curricula and pedagogic interventions to advance the training of postgraduate students in the rapidly developing cross-discipline of e-science, according to the department.

This project has been awarded to a consortium led by the University of the Witwatersrand.

"With the vast Northern Cape being home to mega astronomy initiatives like the MeerKAT and SKA and the Southern African Large Telescope, it is important to note that the province's new Sol Plaatje University will be involved in both consortia."

It adds: "The university's strategic focus is on information technology skills development, and the province will benefit from these projects. The DST is keen to see the province's young people skilled as a result of such initiatives so that they can take up opportunities offered by the astronomy projects in the area."

Moira de Roche, independent learning specialist and director of the Institute of IT Professionals South Africa, says anything that improves the quality of science research and even teaching must be welcomed.

De Roche hopes it will encourage more students to study science. "We know that teacher training is an issue and this means the quality of education at school level is poor. If this initiative helps produce more and more competent teachers, then it is money very well spent."

Thumbs up

Bruce Mellado, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand's School of Physics, has lauded the department's move and says it is an important development in the right direction.

According to Mellado, establishing these projects is a good move to get universities to combine resources and work together. "This is a smart way of utilising computing resources."

UCT professor Russ Taylor says the cyber infrastructure projects awarded by the DST are a significant investment in data-intensive research.

"This will best position the country to play a significant role in global scientific collaboration across the disciplines, to provide policy recommendations in support of decisions to address global research challenges - many of which have specific relevance in the African context - such as astronomy, bioinformatics, public health, food scarcity and climate change."

The Western Cape data-intensive research facility is the first regional data node in the national integrated cyber infrastructure proposed by the department, says Taylor.

He adds: "The award will leverage the considerable investment already made by UCT in data centre capacity and e-research expertise, towards the establishment of a regional consortium that will drive the transition of research practice and develop support services for data-intensive research."

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