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Vol. 32 No. 5
September-October 2010

Improving Analytical Chemistry in South Africa:
Report from a Workshop

“Driving the Triple Helix: Linking Academia, Industry, and Government” was the theme of a workshop held 6 November 2009 at the Birchwood Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. Facilitated by the Analytical Division of the South African Chemical Institute (SACI), the workshop is part of an initiative to link academia, industry, and government in order to ensure that all parties are aware of what the others are doing so that the responsibilities can be aligned with the components of the triple helix. The purpose of the workshop was to map the way forward for the efficient interaction of the three pillars to shape and improve the capability and capacity of analytical chemistry competence in South Africa.

The workshop featured stakeholders from the academic, government, private, and public sectors who presented on their experiences, challenges, and needs related to analytical chemistry, either in terms of expertise, capacity, funding, or training. Some of the key issues that were highlighted included the need for chemists to be able to work in very strict quality management systems, importance of sample handling and investment in the analytical process, challenges facing water and environment, and industry’s role in strengthening research at South African universities.

An open discussion session provided delegates with the opportunity to share their experiences and also to start discussions around the issues presented by speakers. The challenges that were raised included poor school science training, lack of exposure to industry among university students, lack of analytical facilities in South Africa, the need for a centralized facility to house state-of-the-art instrumentation, lack of participation in professional development courses, and lack of recognition of analytical chemistry in South Africa as it was not included in the research chairs initiative (SARChI).

The challenges that were highlighted in the presentations and discussion sessions are summarized in the following recap of the meeting.

Nelson Torto, the chairman of the Analytical Division of SACI, began the workshop by providing a brief background of the interactions between Sasol, SACI, the Department of Science and Tecnology (DST), and the Department of Trade and Industry, which were part of the preliminary discussions that cemented the need for driving the Triple Helix to facilitate knowledge generation and innovation, with a focus on analytical chemistry. He concluded by thanking the invited keynote speaker, Roger Smith, sponsors (DST, Sasol, Chemetrix, Metrohm, Bruker, Microsep, and Rhodes University), speakers from various sectors, participants, and members of the organizing committee (Patricia Forbes, Zenixole Tshentu, Ewa Cucrowska, Priscilla Baker, and Heidi Assumption) for their participation in what he hoped would be the start of a greater and fruitful interaction between the three partners.

Chris Stubbs (Aspen Pharma-care) informed the participants that the local pharmaceutical industry is manufacturing based with very little opportunity for research. He said that a very small percentage of chemists are involved in research as South Africa does not have a pharmacological development and clinical trials industry. As a matter of fact, this role is filled by only a few international companies. Stubbs said that in South Africa, the biggest need is for chemists who are able to work in very strict quality management systems as compliance to regulations and international standards is of utmost importance. They typically employ one senior chemist for every five analysts, and basic to mid-level analytical techniques are used. Stubbs indicated that the biggest challenge was the need for quality management systems training. In conclusion, he predicted that biopharmaceuticals will increase in importance which will lead to a higher demand for microbiologists and biochemists to become analytical chemists.

Bongani Nkosi (Sasol) expressed Sasol’s support for the development of analytical chemistry to help drive the triple helix. In his presentation, he gave an overview of the different operations at Sasol, both locally and abroad. He focused on the support function of the analytical labs for Sasol Technology, Global Chemicals, and the SA Fuel and International Energy business units. He explained that the laboratories typically have three different roles: developing new methods or adapting technology for specific applications (research), providing analytical services and conducting routine and nonroutine analyses for in-process monitoring or market support, and performing quality control and ensuring standardization or validation. Nkosi said that Sasol recognizes the importance of sample handling and investment in the analytical process that goes into it, as it is a necessary step to ensure quality data and it is the biggest contributor to analysis error.

He concluded by discussing Sasol’s extensive University Collaborations Initiative which aims to build capacity in both human capital and infrastructure by partnering with a chosen university. The program ensures that Sasol meets its talent needs for existing and future ventures. Sasol places equipment and/or personnel at a particular university in order to grow a specific research field.

Lia Marantos (Sasol Polymers) discussed polymer science development in South Africa. She noted that Sasol has three key funding initiatives in place and uses a hub and spoke model to facilitate research funding. As Stellenbosch University was recognized as the strongest university in teaching and research in polymer science, it was assigned as the secondary hub (Sasol remains the primary hub). Funding is therefore aimed at improving infrastructure and existing teaching capabilities, as well as at leveraging Stellenbosch Polymer Institute’s capability to develop and strengthen other polymer spokes in the country. Sasol Polymers supports an international expert in polymer analytical chemistry in line with the South African Chairs initiative. This was done specifically because no such expertise existed in South Africa. The chair serves to significantly enhance existing teaching and research capability and also to help attract high-caliber South African students into polymer science.

Vicky Anderson (Anglo Research) focused on the challenges associated with running a lab that deals with environmental samples in which there is demand for lower detection limits and increasing complexity in the sample composition. She stated that the Anglo research lab has shifted its focus from occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in air, especially sampling and analysis of air-nickel. Some of her concerns for a nonspecialist laboratory were the ability to stay abreast with technology developments as well as a low data throughput. She attributed the low throughput partly to the lack of background information on the samples as well as to the availability of certified reference materials. She again highlighted the importance of sample handling and concluded that it was a major component of uncertainty in analysis. Hence, from a regulatory perspective, the uncertainty of the analysis should be reported to understand the significance of the final number obtained.

Arie Dercksen of the South African Association for Food Science & Technology provided an account of the development of analytical techniques, particularly gas chromatography and mass spectrometry and how they impacted on quality monitoring especially in the food and beverage industry. Despite all the analytical developments and state-of-the-art instrumentation, he argued that good chemical knowledge and intuition are still important ingredients in developing analytical techniques. Hence, a day in the library can serve a chemist for a month in the laboratory, he said.

Jonathan Okonkwo (Tshwane University of Technology) gave an overview of the challenges faced in water and environmental analysis, which are mainly the low concentration of analytes, complex sample matrices, and an increasing number of analytes whose immediate impact on health is still unknown. He argued that natural processes were being disrupted by anthropogenic activities. Such a trend poses a threat to the quality of life necessitating the need for analytical methods that can monitor the extent of disruption. He indicated that environmental standards for air, water, and soil quality were established to protect human health and thus ensure the long-term sustainability of an environmental resource. However, he believes that the major challenge rests in monitoring and that is where analytical chemistry plays a major role since concentrations of pollutants are generally low and the matrices of samples are complex. He also urged the development of more sensitive methods to deal with trace amounts of pollutants in water and air.

Thabo Moloi and Gerhard Gericke (ESKOM) reported on the Tertiary Education Support Programme in place at ESKOM’s academy of learning, which offers programs in environmental water treatment, electrocatalytic processes, nanotechnology, fuel cells, and ash chemistry. They provided funding to students so they may pursue M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees after their Bachelor’s degrees, and, in some cases, they are encouraged to become part of the lecturer pool at a particular university. Their vision is to develop expertise and establish a pool of skilled researchers and sustainable centers of excellence.

Sibulelo Vilakazi (Mintek’s Advanced Material Division) discussed the company’s research and development of nanostructured materials and their applications in health, water, and related areas. She said that Mintek views fundamental research and generation of knowledge as the role of universities and that Mintek’s contribution to the triple helix involves the next step, whereby this knowledge is applied through innovation and development into marketable products. For example, she said, Mintek acquired nano-gold particles technology and is developing it for use in selective drug delivery in obesity research and in test kits for TB. These point-of-care diagnostic kits could be used in remote parts of the country.

Ralf Zimmermann (University of Rostock, Germany) described how the triple helix is driven in Germany. As an example, he used the health effect of ambient aerosols and the analytical challenges associated with them. He informed participants that legislation by government forces industry to be involved in environmental monitoring to ensure compliance. However, for industry to achieve this, it needs the universities which are involved in developing methods and using advanced analytical equipment. In Germany, the government funds fundamental research and industry has the responsibility of funding applied research.

Mathoto Thaoge-Lefyedi, the government representative from the Department of Science and Technology, reported on the Human Capital and Knowledge Development program. She said they spend a lot of time on science and technology awareness and they understand the shortages in M.Sc. and Ph.D. candidates and have set targets to increase these numbers. She described an internship program where recent graduates are placed in industry for in-service training while their salaries are paid by DST.

Thaoge-Lefyedi raised concerns over the low scientific publications in ISI journals, absence of an innovation culture in South Africa, and the decrease in the number of science graduates. To address these issues, she said, DST has increased its support of faculty chairs and funding of research and development. She emphasized that a higher proportion of university staff need to be trained to the Ph.D. level and there needs to be a major increase in the number of Ph.D. students. She challenged industry to play a role in sponsoring post-doctoral fellowships and to create placement opportunities through professional development programs.

Open Discussion Session
After the presentations, workshop participants had the opportunity to deliberate on all aspects of the workshop. The following were some of the key points raised:

Training and Curricula
There is generally not enough analytical chemistry taught even at the top six South African universities. The level of competence in this area has decreased for most graduates simply because of the lack of the industrial attachment component (graduates have very limited practical analytical experience and no knowledge of quality-management systems). There is a crucial need for academia to spread the training from technicians to specialists in areas of analytical chemistry and to develop analytical chemists for quality management. Mentoring of math and science teachers by graduates and retired experts was seen as important for the human-capacity development chain.

Continued Professional Development
Even though there is a need to continuously offer bridging and refresher courses, generally the level of participation has been limited. Participants felt that some degree of success was being achieved in areas such as chromatography compared to others. Participants expressed the need for additional short courses in basic spectroscopic methods and asked that SASS, SAAMS, ChromSA, and SACI look into facilitating this.

Recognition of Analytical Chemistry
There is a lack of appreciation for the role of analytical chemistry in the value chain according to participants. They were surprised that analytical chemistry had not been included in the SAR chairs program. The government representatives in attendance acknowledged and recognized that there has been no focus on analytical chemistry as a discipline in South Africa. Since it is a core science that supports several sciences, the matter will be discssed at DST.

Infrastructure and Human Capacity
Some participants suggested that having centralized national facilities for very expensive equipment would be an effective way of managing the shortage of advanced analytical equipment. No single university has the funding available to keep their analytical facilities updated. A national facility could also be used for forensic and regulatory activities as well as for agriculture and environmental surveys. Even developed countries see the need for creating a large national facility to ensure a critical mass of specialists and infrastructure in tackling routine and especially nonroutine tasks. Someone used the dioxin scandal in the Belgian poultry industry as an example of what dangers might befall South Africa’s agricultural exports without adequate analysis capabilities. There is simply no facility on the whole continent that would be able to verify or to counter allegations of trace contamination of South Africa’s produce—let alone search for and eliminate the source of contamination. The participants recognized, however, that there would be a need to train extensively to supply the required expertise for such a facility.

Promotion of Analytical Chemistry
Participants agreed that one of the best ways to foster recognition of analytical chemistry would be through direct links with parliament. Publicity through print media should also play a role in the advancement of the field in South Africa.

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