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Naledi Pandor: African Innovation Will Shape the Global Future

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Naledi Pandor
South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting | Atlantic Photography Boston

SAN JOSE, California — Africa will be the source of the "innovation and intellectual power" necessary to confront global challenges of climate change, threats to energy security, and pandemic disease, predicted Naledi Pandor at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting.

"It's our view that Africa's capacity for innovation will shape the future for not only Africans, but for everyone on the planet," said the South African minister of science and technology. "The usual way of doing things won't work for the African continent. We have to look at solutions and problems in a different way."

Pandor, who served a previous term as science and technology minister, was also her country's minister of education from 2004 to 2009. In the inaugural issue of AAAS' quarterly publication Science & Diplomacy, she outlined South Africa's plan to encourage a wide variety of international scientific partnerships.

"Partnerships are needed to ensure that we can unleash Africa's enormous potential to contribute to global innovation," she said. "But we are advocating very strongly that we no longer wish to have solutions imposed on us. We want to be full participants in developing these solutions to our own challenges."

Pandor said African countries have made significant efforts to develop a" robust innovation and education ecosystem" on the continent, through initiatives such as the African Union's recently updated Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2014. The plan re-commits countries who have signed the agreement to invest 1% of gross domestic product on research and development.

Countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria have had the most success in building their science and technology capacity, she noted. In South Africa, the fields of infectious disease, computing, astronomy, and hydrogen fuel cell technology have been some of the strongest fields in research and industry.

These fields offer good examples of how need and resources are driving African innovation, Pandor said. For instance, she said that advanced fuel cell technology is of special interest in a country — and a continent — where underdeveloped infrastructure keeps some people from having "cost-effective, accessible, and easily deployed" energy sources.

An ongoing study testing an antiretroviral gel against HIV infection is another example of a successful collaboration between South African and international researchers that has produced world-class science (It was named one of Science magazine's annual breakthroughs in 2010). Pandor said new partnerships in health and medicine soon may draw on unique local sources. "We think our secret weapon is our life sciences arsenal, with tremendous potential in its pioneering work with indigenous knowledge."

Astronomy has been another field of growth in South Africa, and Pandor said the country was thrilled to be chosen as one of the sites for the massive Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project. Astronomy projects throughout Africa have brought economic gain, new infrastructure such as roads, improved education at all levels, and increased the demand for a local skilled workforce, she said.

"One of the things that the presence of large-scale science infrastructure does is that it increases the skills pool, and helps Africa to have something we have not seen on the continent in some time, and that is a brain gain rather than a brain drain," she said.

Pandor hopes to encourage much more scientific investment and many other similarly balanced partnerships across the continent. Last year's U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, for instance, was helpful in letting the United States know "we are open for business in science, technology, and innovation," Pandor said.

"We are keenly waiting for you to work with us," she concluded. "We're working extremely well with colleagues from Europe, but we're wondering what's keeping our American colleagues so far away from us?"