Launch of first UK/SA Research Chair

MAY 3, 2016

The launch of a bilateral Research Chair between South Africa and the United Kingdom – the first joint Chair between the two countries – takes place on 4 May 2016.

The bilateral Chair in “ocean science and food security” is jointly hosted by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, the University of Southampton (United Kingdom) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), also in the UK. The new Chair forms part of the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI), established by the Department of Science and Technology  (DST) in partnership with the National Research Foundation (NRF). It is jointly funded by the NRF and the UK’s Newton Fund.

Oceanographer Prof Mike Roberts, who spent 26 years working as a senior researcher in the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Oceans and Coasts division, is the incumbent of the new Chair, which is being formally launched at the 2016 Going Global conference in Cape Town.

NMMU Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Engagement Prof Andrew Leitch – who will be giving a talk at the conference on how this Chair fits into NMMU’s marine and maritime agenda, one of the major flagship focus points of the University – said: “This is the first joint Chair between the United Kingdom and South Africa. We are proud to be partnering with the University of Southampton and the NOC, which are both top ranked as the world’s premier research institutes in marine and ocean science ... NMMU has marine research expertise going back more than 30 years in our Institute for Coastal and Marine Research, and this long track record will support the Chair’s establishment.”

NMMU is involved in each of the various Working Groups defined by Operation Phakisa to develop South Africa’s Blue Economy – the Chair will also play a key role in Operation Phakisa, with its focus on marine food security and aquaculture. NMMU also hosts the South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI).

The launch of the Chair will be attended by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor and the British High Commissioner, Dame Judith Macgregor.

As part of the Chair’s research plan, Roberts, who will equally divide his time between NMMU, the University of Southampton  and the NOC, will focus on developing the Western Indian Oceans Upwelling Research Initiative (WIOURI) ? a flagship project of the UNESCO International Indian Ocean Expedition 2 (IIOE2), which was launched in December 2015.

“Upwelling is the process that takes nutrients from the bottom of the ocean and brings them to the surface.” Essentially, this process provides food for the bottom end of the food chain – phytoplankton, zoo plankton, and so on – which ultimately provides food for fish and top predators.

How this links with food security is that, in parallel with global climate change, the ocean’s upwelling system is changing, which will affect all levels of the food chain.

“The Western Indian Ocean [which stretches from Cape Town to Oman] is unique in that there are around 2-billion people living on islands who depend on artisanal fishing [small trade rather than commercial fishing] for their livelihoods.”

Changes in the ocean will directly impact on their livelihood.

A large part of the Chair’s work will be collecting data using high-tech instruments and creating ocean models from this data.

Roberts said the Eastern Indian Oceans Upwelling Research Initiative (EIOURI), supported by Australia, India and China, was well-developed, but little research had yet been conducted through WIOURI.

He said the link with the University of Southampton created an “innovation bridge” between Southampton’s world-class facilities and South Africa, which was ideally positioned to conduct WIOURI research.

On May 11, several postgraduate NMMU students will be leaving for Southampton University, to “acquire skills not available in South Africa”.

“By dropping these students into a world class facility, we are immediately creating a centre of excellence at NMMU.”

Roberts said NMMU’s first research trip, to collect data off Madagascar, will take place in November.