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Research infrastructure critical in addressing global challenges like climate change and energy

The first International Conference on Research Infrastructure (ICRI) 2016 hosted on African soil ended this week with a broad consensus that global cooperation is key in tackling global challenges, bridging the skills gap and growing innovation hubs.

Attracting about 600 scientists, policy makers, academics and other stakeholders from 60 countries, the conference co-hosted by the European Union (EU) and the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST), ran from 3 to 5 October. Those attending included the EU Commission Director-General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, the EU Ambassador to South Africa, Marcus Cornaro, and Finnish Member of European Parliament, Henna Virkkunen.

Discussions at the conference covered issues such as sustainability, the socio-economic impact of research infrastructure, human capital development and big data management.

Research infrastructure (RI) plays an increasingly important role in advancing knowledge and technology.

In her opening remarks, DST Minister Naledi Pandor set the tone for the three-day deliberations by urging participants to think about the needs of communities.

“Research infrastructures should never be ivory towers, separate from society,” the Minister said, adding, “Science knows no borders, and partnerships are important, particularly in these difficult times.”

Awarding winning scientist Kevin Govender who delivered the keynote address, echoed Minister Pandor’s sentiments, saying that RI was an enabler, and without people it was meaningless.

“When we push human knowledge, are we leaving humanity behind? If we don’t manage this knowledge it could result in greater inequality.”

During the plenary and parallel sessions, participants focused on topics such as how RI could address global challenges like climate change and energy issues; the impact of investments made in RI on issues of poverty, inequality and unemployment; and the need to manage big data.

Closing the conference, DST DG Dr Phil Mjwara said that RI was, by its nature, complex to govern and operationalise.

“No one country has the financial and human resources required,” he said, emphasising that cooperation was important, making the expansion of partnerships across regions and sector crucial.

The Robert-Jan Smits concurred and said that the EU was looking at an action plan for the long-term funding of RI.

On the sidelines of ICRI, the European Union and South Africa celebrated 20 years of cooperation on science and technology. A memorandum of understanding in Marine Research was also signed, further cementing relations.

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