The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF), in 2022, hosted a two-day discussion forum on ‘basic sciences for sustainable development,’ focusing on its contributions to the world and society.
There is ongoing debate in the science community and in society, on whether it is valuable to pursue science for the sake of simply gaining knowledge or does scientific knowledge only have worth if we can apply it to solving specific problems or improving people’s lives? Basic sciences are often overlooked and undervalued as their influence is not always obvious to the broader public.
However, basic sciences play a pivotal role in improving the quality of life for human beings through their contributions to medical sciences, agricultural sciences, space sciences, computer sciences, and beyond. The applied sciences, which are built on the foundations of basic sciences have generated technologies and solutions that can and often have dramatically improved the quality of life of humans and (to a lesser extent) animals and plants, the environment, industry, etc.
Applied sciences and technology inform and influence decision-making on multiple levels and basic sciences form the foundations on which applied sciences explore, develop and transform. Basic sciences can have significant, but indirect, influence on public policies, personal decisions, and communities across the touch-points of energy, conservation, agriculture, health, transportation, communication, defence, economics, leisure, and exploration. And so much more.
Basic sciences – foundations, innovations and value
Prof Bruce Mellado, Director: Institute for Collider Particle Physics, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), unpacked the importance of particle physics as the foundation of cutting-edge research and its implications.
He introduced the case for physics and how it contributed to modelling of the pandemic using techniques developed by the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. He unpacked the different types of physics from particle physics that look at the structure of the nucleus through to the other side of the spectrum where astrophysics and cosmology live.
Covering the standard model of particle physics, the Higgs Boson, the Hadron Collider, and the CERN consortium, Mellado unpacked advanced physics achievements, the role that South Africa has played in these, and the awards won by local organisations and experts. He concluded with how important these discoveries are and how they have applications and implications across health, science, the environment and more. The sky isn’t the limit, he says, not even the universe is.
Mr Mthokozisi Moyo, PhD candidate: Global Change Institute, School of Animals, Plants and Environmental Sciences, Wits, then spoke about understanding ecosystem processes in order to deal with climate change. Moyo offered a fresh perspective around climate change and how basic sciences can help fill the gaps and mitigate the challenge. He discussed the importance of understanding the processes that drive climate change and the factors that influence it. He went on to talk about some of the devastating results of this change from flooding to hotter and drier weather, and to migration and livelihoods.
Then he unpacked how a lot of research around climate change has focused on the northern hemisphere and how it is not really applicable to the southern hemisphere. It is important to develop a model for Africa, particularly around the role that grasslands play in the ecosystem. He concluded by emphasising that Africa would lose much biodiversity if the climate became more seasonal. There tends to be higher biodiversity in areas that have low seasonality. In addition, Moyo emphasised how important seasonality is in African ecosystems and that by understanding ecosystem processes we can hopefully deal with climate change more effectively.
Dr Farai Dziike, Researcher: Materials Chemistry, Wits, presented on advancement in waste-water treatment technologies. His presentation focused on the role of basic science and innovation in providing clean water and sanitation and he started out with a look at how complex the situation has become in KwaZulu-Natal. Water in the area smells unpleasant because of extremely high levels of e.coli which comes from raw sewerage that has ended up in streams and the ocean, and is rapidly becoming a health risk for communities in the region. This is exacerbated by high temperatures and the knock-on impact of dried-up streams that lead to crop failure and animal deaths.
The challenge in South Africa is that conventional water treatment methods are not designed to cater for the levels of contamination in the water. In addition, the infrastructure has aged and it is too expensive to replace in the current conditions. With manufacturing, growing population pressure and industrial use, the magnitude of contamination is at the point where it can collapse ailing infrastructure. Infrastructure replacement or restoration is not happening in South Africa due to limited resources and availability.
The final speaker of the first day was Prof Sam Mashele, Dean: Faculty of Health & Environmental Sciences, Central University of Technology (CUT), who spoke on how basic sciences like botany contribute to human health. He said that the basic science of botany is a fundamental science that can contribute to human health and yet it remains a largely unknown field for many. People don’t see plants as part of wildlife even though they make up around 80% of the world’s biomass and are key to human and animal health. Science has shown that introducing plant-based foods into a person’s diet will improve their well-being and potentially mitigate the risk of contracting certain diseases.
Mashele then looked at different plant-based drugs that are being considered to treat certain conditions, like cancer, less invasively. He says that usually drugs use a single ingredient to tackle a specific issue and that this is not an ideal approach, especially when looking at the complex diseases that humanity is facing today. His team has been working on drugs in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies that can improve quality of life and that synergise multiple compounds to have a positive effect without potentially causing serious side-effects.
Find out more on NSTF website.