UFS hones focus to nurture world-class research - Business Day
2006-02-10

 

Sue Blaine
THE University of the Free State plans to concentrate academic study in five areas to strengthen its status as a research institution, the university said yesterday.

The Bloemfontein-based university will focus on areas it classes as development (economics, health, literacy and other human activities) and social transformation — an analysis of how South African society is changing from a philosophical and political viewpoint.

The other three research areas are new technologies, water resources and security, and food production and security.

“It makes sense to concentrate the university’s human resources, infrastructure, financial resources and intellectual expertise,” said university rector and vice-chancellor Prof Frederick Fourie.

The move introduces a style of research that matches international trends.

Universities in Canada, Britain and Australia are setting up their research departments in this way.

In SA, the universities of Stellenbosch, the Witwatersrand, Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal have embarked on similar strategies.

Fourie gave the example of his alma mater, the US’s Harvard University, whose Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centre is an example of “clustering” on a larger scale.

The centre is a collaboration with Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Museum of Science, Boston, and universities in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan.

Fourie said the modern research world was so diverse and complex that no university could cover all bases so it was better to establish areas of expertise that made it different from its peer institutions.

Having scientists and researchers work in teams meant certain issues could be researched and developed in a multidisciplinary manner. “I think it’s the only way in which any university can excel. This will help SA become world class in selected areas,” Fourie said.

It is in chemistry that the cluster model has already had its most visible results, with a slice of the university’s on-campus pharmacological testing company Farmovs, established in the 1980s, sold to the US’s Parexel International.

The company is one of the largest biopharmaceutical outsourcing organisations in the world, providing knowledge-based contract research, medical marketing and consulting services to the global pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries, according to Biospace, an internet-based company providing resources and information to the life science industry.

President Thabo Mbeki, in his state of the nation address last Friday, committed government to allocating more resources to research, development and innovation, and increasing the pool of young researchers in SA.

He said government would “continue to engage the leadership of our tertiary institutions focused on working with them to meet the nation’s expectations with regard to teaching and research”.

The university used to be home to several A-rated scientists, who are considered by a peer review, conducted by the National Research Foundation, to be world leaders in their fields, but had lost them to other institutions. Fourie hopes to lure them back, and with them postgraduate students and funding for their work.

“At universities where you get a star researcher they tend to attract people and funding; if they leave they take that with them,” he said.

Fourie said R50m would be spent on the project, with some already spent last year and the last disbursements to be made next year.

There is R10m in seed money to gather experts and improve equipment and infrastructure, and R17m has been invested in chemistry equipment and staff.


FACULTY CONTACT

T: +27 51 401 2240 or humanities@ufs.ac.za

Postgraduate:
Marizanne Cloete: +27 51 401 2592

Undergraduate:
Katlego Mabulana: +27 51 401 2495
Juanita Hlongwane: +27 51 401 3269

Humanities photo next to contact block

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