The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa’s best-kept secret, has been involved in research and development benefiting the nation’s people for 75 years and is the organisation that first jumps to mind when thinking of South African innovation. In its mission to expand the frontiers of human understanding and improve society as whole through R&D programmes, the CSIR has a long legacy of success behind it and in this issue we look at exactly how the organisation has achieved this…
“This is the century of applied science, of the application of the results of laboratory research to every activity of mankind,” – the first line of the mission statement of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) 75 years ago, as stated by Sir Basil Schonland, the first chairman and CEO of the organisation and South Afirca’s ‘scientist of the century’.
The CSIR is South Africa’s foremost scientific research and development (R&D) organisation and one of the leading organisations of its type on the African continent. Established by an Act of Parliament in 1945 as a science council, the CSIR embarks on directed and multidisciplinary research, technological innovation and industrial and scientific development in order to positively impact the lives of South Africa’s people and benefit the economy.
The organisation’s directive is to be 100% committed to supporting innovation in South Africa, and by doing so boosting national competitiveness in the global economy. As such, the CSIR employs around 3,000 dedicated technical and scientific researchers; it is one big melting pot of the best talent the country has to offer, all focused on advances that will influence the future of the Rainbow Nation.
The CSIR has quietly served as the driving force behind a number of significant scientific and technological developments that have had a huge impact globally, for example, the lithium-ion batteries used in mobile phones and laptops today. It is the largest R&D organisation in South Africa, accounting for about 10% of the entire African R&D budget.
Pivotal for the creation of new industry sectors, the development of new and improved products, and the enhancement of existing infrastructure and services – the South African government has recognised some of the developments that will need to be made to make more of a commitment to national R&D activity.
According to the most recent figures available from the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa spent R22.2 billion on R&D in 2011-12 – 0.76% of GDP.
The government regards R&D expenditure as a key contributor to South Africa’s transition to a more knowledge-based economy in the years to come and as such the National Development Plan (NDP) calls for greater investment in this area, targeted at a figure of 1.5% of GDP by 2019.
The CSIR is one of the vehicles that the government will use to actuate this national push towards greater investments in innovation – almost half of its funding already comes from the state in promotion of this.
Dr. Sibusiso Sibisi, the current head of the CSIR, is a former chairman of South Africa’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and has been CEO at the organisation for over a decade. Commenting on the origins of the CSIR, Dr. Sibisi explained that “from the very outset the intention with the establishment of the CSIR was not simply to conduct research as might be conducted in an institution at a university, but actively to seek to advance through the application of science those results in such a manner to have an influence on the economy, on the industry in the country.”
Currently the CSIR receives a grant annually from the government, through the Department of Science and Technology, which accounts for around 40% of its total income. The rest is made up from the various research contracts with the public and private sector, both locally and abroad, royalties from patents and dividends from some of the commercial companies created by the CSIR.
Perhaps one of the most important features of the CSIR is its constant drive towards collaboration as a tool to drive innovation; it actively fosters partnerships with clients and partner organisations regionally and abroad, as part of a ‘global sphere of influence on matters of technology’.
This focus on partnerships and collaboration includes the important role of open dialogue between the organisation and various education institutions – providing and receiving support on a range of research initiatives and extending its influence to the future generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
All CSIR’s R&D work contributes to the National System of Innovation (NSI) –a term widely used in South African policy over the past two decades to characterise the country’s collective efforts towards encouraging technological innovation and a framework that aims to bring about synergy in this area.
CSIR’s main areas of research are; built environment; biosciences; defence, peace, safety and security; information and communications; laser technology; materials science and manufacturing; natural resources and the environment; mining innovation; modelling and digital science; mobile intelligence autonomous systems; nanotechnology and synthetic biology.
The CSIR’s list of ground-breaking inventions is too long summarise in just a few hundred words, however one of the first that began this legacy of innovation for the benefit of the South African economy was the invention of the Tellurometer by Dr. Trevor Wadley in 1956.
The Tellurometer is the first successful microwave electronic distance measurement equipment which not only revolutionised map making, as it could accurately measure long distances up to 50km, but is the same technology used today for the transmission of wireless signals.
Dr. Sibisi explained this landmark invention further: “In 1956, the very first start-up company based on CSIR was established as a private firm to develop and license another means of distance measurement involving the use of an instrument referred to as the Tellurometer. This was invented by Trevor Wadley and it was a device to measure distances, between say one mountain and another.
“You simply send a signal, it gets reflected back, and from the time of flight, you can work out what the distance is between the one point and the other, for purposes of cartography and so on. And this technology was in fact, not to be known to Trevor Wadley at the time, exactly the same technology that we use today to transmit wireless signals.
“Ultimately for those who may not know, the technology behind the backbone network for wireless telecommunications was invented here in South Africa and only subsequently adopted by others.”
It was following this discovery by Dr. Wadley that the CSIR set up its patenting division in 1957, making it one of the very first organisations of its type in the world to actively pursue such commercial opportunity from the research activity it was conducting – the rest, as it could be said, is history.
By 1959, the CSIR had 75 patents and patent applications and 22 active licenses. The total royalties for the organisation from 1955 to 2013 are approximately R500 million, at an average royalty rate of 3%.
Over the years the CSIR has developed everything from the world’s first injectable plant-produced medicine and the TimeMachine used by road engineers globally, to a satellite-based fire warning system and a low-cost computer for the blind. In fact, many auspicious inventions are literally sitting in the vaults of its Pretoria campus, waiting for the investment capital needed to transform them into real working innovations.
One example and a world first; the CSIR has invented a system that prevents train derailments by monitoring the entire track with guided ultrasound waves. A pilot unit tested on two train lines in South Africa prevented two derailments in one year, according to the CSIR, saving the operator a substantial $5 million and, more importantly, saving the lives of passengers. This breakthrough is just one of the developments awaiting commercial interest before it can be brought to market.
Other recent inventions and ‘firsts’ for the seminal science organisation include the world’s first digital laser, capable of a purely digital control of what comes out of the laser in real-time, and the world’s first 3D underwater imaging system. Both inventions have come out of the CSIR in the past five years and hold huge potential commercially for the organisation and the South African economy.
The CSIR has quietly formed the backbone of South African innovation for three quarters of a century, helping to elevate the country’s contribution to the global sphere of knowledge and generating income and new areas of industry for the nation. With such a long legacy for success behind it, and a wide range of research programmes currently in operation, it is exciting to wonder what discoveries the inspirational organisation will make next and, in turn, what the benefits will be for the people of South Africa.