Address by President Nelson Mandela on the inauguration of the Academy of Science of South Africa

22 March 1996

President of the Academy of Science of South Africa;
Minister Ngubane;
Founding members of the Academy;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted and deeply honoured to share in the founding of the Academy of Science of South Africa with such distinguished leaders of science.

This new birth comes only weeks before the second anniversary of the day on which the people of South Africa inaugurated their freedom and began working together to build a new nation.

That context reminds us that tonight's inauguration is not an isolated act, but part of the building of a new society which freedom has made possible. This fact should divest the occasion of mere symbolism. We live in a period which challenges science to define its role and assume its place in our emerging nation.

None of us will need to be persuaded of the utility of science to national growth and prosperity. But neither will we need to be reminded of its capacity to lend itself to destruction and repression. Whether knowledge is used for good or evil depends on the goals to which we aspire and the decisions we make, as government, as scientists and as ordinary citizens.

The institution being established tonight has, therefore, the potential to play a critical role in the development of both science and the nation as a whole.

The establishment of the Academy at this critical moment, with the nobel objective of promoting and applying scientific thinking in the service of society, does also have its risks.

On the one hand, the creation of an academy of sciences obeys a commendable, indeed essential, ideal: namely, more efficient management of the sciences as a national asset. On the other hand, the advancement of knowledge does also depend on scientific activity that is unfettered by the demands of immediate and pre-defined missions.

The challenge will be to find the right balance between activities aimed at producing useful results in the short-term and those which may not produce applications for decades.

Wherever South Africa finds that balance, science will draw its sustenance from a partnership with government and the business sector aimed at the application and advancement of knowledge in the achievement of our national goals.

South Africa's first democratic government has given concrete and practical effect to its high regard for science by establishing the country's first Ministry of Science and Technology. Its mandate includes a far-reaching transformation of our science and technology system, in order to bring knowledge to bear in promoting growth and development to improve the quality of life of all South Africans.

The outline of the new system is taking shape with the widest consultation; the draft White Paper soon to be published will provide the opportunity for further public debate. No doubt the Academy will make its voice heard to the benefit of the whole country.

The eagerness for change within the system is reflected, amongst other things, in the promptness with which research councils have undertaken interim restructuring of their governing bodies, to make them more representative and more responsive to social needs.

Our business sector is also proving eager to leave behind a period in which economic protection and heavy dependence on defence-oriented research inhibited innovation. This will be essential as we set about building an economy that is internationally competitive.

The scientific community can therefore be assured of a sustaining and challenging call upon its services. ut the quality of its response, the very life and vigour of science, engineering and technology in South Africa, will depend on the community itself.

This is the challenge which the Academy has defined for itself. Its authority will not derive from any law or statue but on the results of its work.

The presence here tonight of so many eminent figures of international science and science policy gives practical expression to a vital aspect of the Academy's work.

May I take this opportunity to welcome our distinguished visitors, and thank you for your interest in the future of South African science. Its health in this era of globalisation depends critically on exchange of ideas and collaboration in research across national and cultural boundaries.

The Academy should in particular also facilitate co-operation between South African scientists and other African scientists, and the sharing of our skills and technology base as a continent. This would lend strength to continental efforts towards economic co-operation and development.

Without diminishing the importance of fundamental research, the Academy's success will also depend on how effectively it promotes the application of knowledge to our people's most urgent basic needs.

The practical orientation of your founding conference is therefore most commendable, with its focus on Education and Health. Investment in people, of which education and health-care are vital components, is key both to improving well-being and to generating sustained growth and competitiveness.

In concluding I would like to touch on what I believe to be one of the most important gifts which the Academy could bestow on our emerging nation.

South Africa's need for rapid expansion of its scientific and technological skills is immense. It is inhibited by the disastrous restriction which apartheid imposed on the level of scientific and technological education: and by an image of science tarnished in the eyes of the majority by associations with the past.

On your shoulders rest the challenge of giving science a face that inspires our youth to seek our science, engineering and technology is part of that task.

But it requires more. It also means orienting science in a practical and visible way towards helping meet basic needs. It means recognising the intellectual challenge of applying knowledge to meeting such needs, rewarding achievements in that direction and celebrating them with the highest honours.

The New Patriotism which is abroad in South Africa is rooted in our progress in overcoming the legacy of our past - esteem for South African science ought to become part of that national pride.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation