ASSAf News

So what is the difference between science and technology? They are pretty much the same thing, right? Wrong, according to Nobel Laureate Sir Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 for his discovery of the wunder-material graphene.


Nobel Laureate Sir Konstantin Novoselov argues that the application of research is best achieved by companies, not universities and research institutions. Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

“The purpose of science is not to generate technology,” he explains, “but rather generate the understanding that provides the possibility to generate technology.”

Novoselov was speaking from his experience in researching advanced materials like graphene, a single-layered carbon compound which seems to have an endless supply of applications. Graphene is just one of a plethora of new ‘smart materials’, substances which react to environmental changes such as pH, temperature, or ultraviolet light. They form the basis of many modern sensors and are being used in fields from computing to medicine.

“The question then is: Who should be responsible for translation of research?” Novoselov continues. “It still needs to be done, but I do not think universities are the right vehicles to do that.”

South African materials researcher and young delegate to the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, Dr Thandi Gumede, agrees with this assessment.

“I am happy to publish my research and for others to turn this research into products,” she says. “I personally do not want to be an entrepreneur as I enjoy the research process more. In this case, scientists like me however need to form collaborations and partnerships to turn our research into products.”

In her work at the University of the Free State, Gumede develops and characterises new types of biodegradable plastic. Her fellow Lindau young delegate, Valentine Saasa, works on next-generation sensors for detecting diabetes at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The CSIR explicitly supports industrialisation of research, and Saasa says that there are a number of companies interested in helping to commercialise this sensor built with smart materials.

“We are looking for industry partners in line with the CSIR’s new mandate for industrialisation, and we have companies interested in partnering with us to validate our prototype and start the manufacture of this new medical device.”

Both researchers agree with Novoselov that science applied in the right way has the power to change and shape South Africa and the world in positive ways.

“In South Africa we have high unemployment rates, and we as PhD students and young researchers have the power to change that, by being proactive in turning our research into products. There are a lot of opportunities for South African scientists, because there are not a lot of science-based companies.”

Twenty young Academy of Science South Africa (ASSAf)-nominated South African (SA)scientists are at Lindau this year. Funding for the SA young scientists has been provided by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The South African young scientists are: Tariq Blecher, Rhodes University/Square Kilometre Array; Stive Djiokop, Nelson Mandela University (NMU); Jake Gordin, University of Cape Town (UCT); Thandi Gumede, Central University of Technology; Justin Harrisson, University of Pretoria (UP); Julia Healy, UCT/ South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO); Jan Louw, Stellenbosch University; Genevéve Marx, NMU; Itumeleng Monageng, UCT/ South African Astronomical Observatory; Francis Otieno, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits); Valentine Saasa, UP/Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; Michael Sarkis, Wits; Hester Schutte, North-West University (NWU); Katekani Shingange, University of the Free State ; Sinenhlanhla Sikhosana, University of KwaZulu-Natal; Kimeel Sooknunan, UCT; Tanita Ramburuth-Hurt, Wits; Johannes Thiersen, NWU; Nicole Thomas, University of the Western Cape/ SARAO; Danielle Venter, NMU.

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