Rapid urbanisation, population growth and increasingly scarce resources are high on the agendas of scientists, innovators, decision makers and governments around the world.
The 5th National Global Change Conference, currently under way at the University of the Free State (UFS) in Bloemfontein, has brought these stakeholders together to discuss research related to addressing these and other challenges.
The four-day conference, organised by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), in partnership with National Research Foundation and the University of the Free State, offers an opportunity for participants to share information on and debate local research and development initiatives being implemented under the Global Change Grand Challenge, identified in the DSI's Ten-Year Innovation Plan, and recognised again in its 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation.
Delivering a speech on behalf of Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, the Deputy Director-General: Socio-Economic Innovation Partnerships at the DSI, Imraan Patel, said that the Department's commitment to research and innovation in the area of global change was inspired by a number of factors, including the country's scientific expertise, its size and variations, its wealth of biodiversity and its economic structure.
"To take advantage of our unique features as a country will require that we not only enhance our science capabilities, but also make bold but informed decisions about our scientific and technological investments," said Patel.
He added that, while South Africa had some features that made it distinctive as a country, this did not mean that it was not vulnerable to global challenges and the threats that face all of humanity.
The Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS, Prof Francis Petersen, said that the impacts of global change hit vulnerable communities the hardest. He said that he hoped that the conference would achieve its objective of providing a forum for stakeholders to advance their understanding and knowledge of research and technology for humanity.
Speaking about the theme of the conference, "Research and innovation accelerating transformations to global sustainability", Prof Petersen said that the challenges were massive and would not be solved quickly. He indicated that long-term initiatives and solutions would be needed.
"The UFS is situated in the central part of the country, which has large rural areas. The effects of climate change on these rural communities will include higher temperatures, extreme weather, droughts, floods, the depletion of water resources and biodiversity, soil erosion and decreased subsistence economies. So, human health and safety, food and water security, and socio-economic development will be impacted," said Prof Petersen.
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, an accomplished scholar interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning research, emphasised the importance of good leadership as the world embraced the era of the 4th industrial revolution.
"Across the board, we require a new type of leader who understands this paradigm shift (4IR) and who will devise appropriate strategies to make the South African economy competitive," he said.
Prof Marwala, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, explained that leaders needed to embrace change and all facets of learning, in their complexity and diversity.
"We need to inculcate the culture of multidisciplinary education and adaptability in our university system. As we learn to diversify and make our education more adaptable, we also need to understand that there is something about doing things together. A society that knows when to work individually and when to work collectively thrives. This is a requirement for the 4IR, because 4IR is the convergence of men and machine to become a single system. Whoever is going to design the machines will have to understand the person and understand the machine at the same time," said Prof Marwala.
The conference concluded on 2 February, with discussions on the state of the Southern Ocean, the role of physics in power grids, climate change and health, water resources, global crises, and agriculture in a changing environment taking centre stage.
For more information, contact Julian Leshilo-Sebake at Julian.Leshilo@dst.gov.za or 060 961 2194, or Andre Damons at 076 493 2044 or DamonsAD@ufs.ac.za.
Issued by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation.