What is at the Centre of Excellence?

In 2004, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) with the National Research Foundation (NRF) established the first seven Centres of Excellence (CoE). These Centres, based on the successful CoE models implemented overseas, were adopted to build on existing capacity and resources but also aimed to bring researchers together to collaborate across disciplines and institutions to drive science excellence.

I joined the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI)–the host institution of the Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology (CTHB)–in 2008 when I started my Honours degree. At the beginning on my Honours, I didn’t quite understand what the Centre of Excellence was or why it even existed. How “excellent” was this programme? Was there a need for tree health research in South Africa? I was really only concerned about doing well and learning as much as I could so that I would be a better candidate for a Master’s. But my eyes have opened up since then.

Between my classes and research project, I was encouraged to get more involved in the CoE’s activities by volunteering to be a mentor for the undergraduate mentorship programme, working in the Diagnostic Clinic (which services both the CTHB and TPCP), attending workshops run by Dr Marin Coetzee, who conducts some of his research in the CoE, and so on. The CTHB–true to the purpose of the Centres–made more room for excellence; more postgraduates could complete their studies through FABI, more essential equipment could be bought, research could include other sectors and not threaten industry-specific funding, opportunities through workshops and collaboration started to grow, leveraging funding and excellence became more important, etc. The CTHB – a virtual centre run through FABI – became a critical part of FABI and because of that, the CTHB absorbed some of its excellence, built on it and delivered its own excellence.

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The TPCP began at the University of the Free State before moving to the University of Pretoria, where it became the founding programme for FABI. The TPCP helped start a number of other research programmes that are run out of FABI.  The CTHB started at FABI in 2004 and has linked a number of institutions to FABI and the University of Pretoria. 

I experienced how research can truly grow and have international reach. As the CoE’s research net widened, we started to identify more and more problems of concern to plant health in South Africa—many of them brought on by climate change and globalization. Because of the limited capacity in the country, back in 2004 to deal with pest and diseases that were arriving from other parts of the world, the importance of national and international collaborations and knowledge exchange became a priority. These close connections–that are still being built and expanded today–have led to growth in South Africa’s capacity; not just around FABI but at all the institutions linked to the CTHB. In 14 years, the CoE has produced 786 publications, 125 students, and really changed the ways in which we understand diseases of our native plants.

As a student associated with a CoE, I have had better opportunities for funding, wonderful teaching, mentorship, collaboration, and international exposure. Like those that have come before me, I plan to contribute to the science excellence in the country and grow more excellent people. No matter what happens to these Centres in future, as funding continues to dry up, we need to remember to keep excellence at the centre of anything we do—for us, for our country and for the world.

Collaboration: It’s the African way!

Africa is a very beautiful continent with vast possibilities, especially when it comes to research. This is because of our natural resources, something in which we can take great pride. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, we run the risk of over-exploiting our own resources as we’re slow in taking up research to address environmental degradation and climate change. I think, however, there is a solution.

Collaboration. The classical definition of the word is working with someone to produce some shared end result. But how can this benefit Africa and its researchers? Let me firstly reflect on the “great” (and rather pervasive) idea of a solitary scientist.

One of the most momentous discoveries of the modern era was the discovery of penicillin. History has it that penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming,

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Sir Alexander Fleming at work

who was a professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. After realizing that many soldiers were dying from festering wounds during the 2nd World War, Prof Fleming decided to go to the lab and try to find a remedy. As history now tells us, he was able to isolate a rare strain of Penicillium notatum which was able to inhibit the growth of bacteria. This was the greatest discovery that  paved way for further development of antibiotics. Today, Prof Fleming is celebrated as one of the greatest scientists to have ever lived. But was Prof Fleming really alone in the lab? Formal history rarely acknowledges that it was his assistants, Stuart Craddock and Frederick Ridley, who successfully isolated pure penicillin from the mould juice that Fleming had observed.

My argument here is not that these people should be credited but rather that even the greatest discoveries were a team effort – a collaboration between two or more people. Today, this is what Africa needs. Internationally, collaboration is increasing at an incredible rate. These consortia between multiple institutions and even countries ensure maximum access to resources and further advancement of all team members’ work.

In Africa, I get the impression that we believe in making the name for ourselves, as individuals. It is almost as if not being known as a solitary researcher discredits one’s work. Sure, you can protect your ideas and discoveries if you’re working in isolation, but there are major drawbacks to keeping to yourself. Limited funds, resources and slow processes are just the beginning. We often forget that science, in its nature, is collaborative.

Let us look at what will happen if Africans were to collaborate more, instead of working in isolation.

African scientists will have access to cutting-edge technology which will open up vast possibilities for research. The networks and consortia will help with access to bigger grants that are tailored for improving the African research.

Capacity building in terms of retaining skills, more knowledge and tools will also be born from these collaborations. This directly leads to the last important element of collaboration – critique.

Much of science works better if it is critiqued. You may have two people from the same field with the same set of skills but I can bet that their opinions will not be the same. This is the reason why collaboration works. The scientist whose ideas are critiqued and pass through some amounts of fire comes out golden on the other side.

It is high time that we get these collaborations going as Africans, otherwise we are doomed to stay where we are in research. As with the true spirit of Ubuntu, we become better by working together and helping others. I do not believe that the developed countries have the intellectual capacity that we don’t. For us it just takesgoing back to our African way of being – collective action – to ensure that we see a better tomorrow.

 

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Ubuntu-The true African way of being