UCT hosts two of the seven national Centres of Excellence awarded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) through the National Research Foundation. The aim is for these Centres to act as hubs of research and development in fields identified as strategically important to South Africa. Both Centres at UCT underwent their first five-yearly external (international) reviews in 2009. UCT is also home to a DST Competence Centre. While centres of excellence focus on basic science and research, centres of competence concentrate on applied science, technology development and technology transfer.
The Centre of Excellence at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute Birds as Keys to Biodiversity Conservation
The Centre for Excellence in the Percy FitzPatrick Institute (Fitztitute) focuses its scientific labours on the study of birds, in particular their role in the maintenance of biodiversity and the sustainable use of biological resources.
In 2009, researchers published 61 peer-reviewed papers, including 14 in journals with a Science Citation Index-impact factor of 3.5 or higher. Staff also contributed to eight semi-technical books and 54 semi-popular articles.
The centre continues to build research capacity, supervising the work of 14 postdoctoral fellows, 15 PhDs, 28 masters students and two honours students in 2009. Particularly promising was that 40 per cent of these candidates were black, and half were women.
A highlight in the Fitztitutes calendar was the scheduled external review. The review panel was unanimous that the Centre is performing well above expectations praising its scholarship, outreach, postgraduate recruitment and support and recommended not just that its funding be renewed, but also that it be increased.
The Fitztitute has, as suggested by the panel, increased its focus on terrestrial ornithology and conservation. It also shifted its DST/NRF funding towards conservation research, and raised further funding (which now accounts for 72 per cent of the centres overall budget).
The payoff was almost immediate. Over the year, the Fitztitutes research showed a clear bias towards conservation research, with six of its 61 peer-reviewed papers focusing on characterising biodiversity, 21 on evolutionary ecology and 34 on maintaining biodiversity.
The Centre of Excellence in Catalysis c*change
The DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis, c*change, is hosted by the Centre for Catalysis Research in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Its academics and researchers concentrate on four specific research areas synthesis gas conversion, paraffin activation, value addition to unique olefinic feedstocks, and the underdeveloped small-volume chemicals sector.
The review panel paid tribute to and endorsed its support for the Centres activities, and highlighted key issues for its future direction and sustainability. The Centre was described as a lively, well-managed network of expertise that has brought together academic groups from diverse disciplines and interests. The panel recommended that c*change continue its activities while striving for international excellence in selected programmes.
The Centre is already looking into funding opportunities beyond the 10-year DST and NRF funding. In addition, it has applied for a SARChI chair in catalysis (nano-materials), a position that would bolster its already impressive capacity.
In 2009, the Centre comprised a team of 57 postgraduate students (more than half of whom are female and black), six postdoctoral researchers, and some 24 academics from 14 research groups based in nine higher-education institutions across the country. A total of 21 projects were funded over the year.
The Centres output included 15 publications, six published conference proceedings and 32 unpublished conference contributions in 2009. Researchers also submitted two international patent applications.
c*change has also looked into setting up several networks and collaborations with institutions in the UK and Germany, and has contributed to the new Further Education and Training school syllabus and an associated workshop for teachers.
New DST Centre funds cutting-edge research in fuel-cell technologies
The DST Hydrogen Catalysis Competence Centre, HySA/catalysis, at UCT is one of three competence centres that sprang from the Department of Science and Technologys National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Flagship Project, better known as Hydrogen South Africa or HySA. HySAs aim was to create knowledge and human-resource capacity that would develop high-value commercial activities in hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies using local resources and existing know-how. HySA/catalysis co-managed with Mintek received its first project funding in 2009, and kicked off work at UCT, Mintek and affiliated institutions. The work of five masters students, one PhD student and a postdoctoral fellow was funded for the year. Work included the installation of essential equipment for example, four fuel-cell test stations and the building of test units for fuel processing. The Centre has also set up collaborations with Imperial College and Johnsson-Matthey (UK), as well as with the National Chemical Laboratory in India. Further national and international collaborations are being explored.