DG downplays impact of Brexit on SA science research

10 July 2018 - 12:13 By Tamar Kahn
Image: 123rf/ Igor Zakharevich

Brexit poses no immediate threat to South African ties with scientists in the UK or the European Union‚ and may even open up new funding opportunities for local researchers.

This is according to Phil Mjwara‚ director-general in the department of science and technology.

"We don’t think Brexit will have a huge impact on collaboration between British and South African scientists. In fact‚ since the announcement [of Britain’s plans to quit the EU] they have been looking for other forms of collaboration‚" Mjwara said on Monday evening on the sidelines of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2018 in Toulouse‚ France.

EuroScience is a European non-profit organisation for scientists. The forum is Europe’s biggest interdisciplinary science meeting. The week-long event runs until July 14.

"Since Brexit we have seen a huge interest in pushing up the Newton Fund‚ and bringing in other Commonwealth countries‚" said Mjwara.

The Newton Fund is a British initiative that has committed £735-million (over R13-billion) until 2021 to build research partnerships‚ with matched commitments from participating countries.

Mjwara’s confidence stands in stark contrast to the message EuroScience president Lauritz Holm-Nielsen delivered at the opening ceremony of the forum‚ when he described Britain’s plans to exit the EU as "a black cloud" on the free movement of scientists‚ threatening research collaboration.

Holm-Nielsen said the cutting-edge science taking place at European universities depended on the "free movement of brains".

"We must all work hard to ensure European research in future includes UK researchers and institutions‚" he said.

South African scientists have a longstanding relationship with the European Union’s key funding instrument for collaborative research‚ known as the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

The current funding round‚ known as Horizon 2020‚ has set aside €79bn (R1.25-trillion) for research projects.

SA is one of only a handful of non-EU countries that participate in the programme and has so far received R400-million in funding from Horizon 2020‚ said Mjwara.

Unlike the Newton Fund‚ Horizon 2020 does not require partner countries to match the resources it provides.

Mjwara said the department had recently allocated R36-million‚ channelled via the National Research Fund (NRF)‚ to help scientists at historically disadvantaged institutions to apply for international research grants and participate in cutting-edge research.