An alarming lack of graduates in scientific fields in South Africa has spurned educators, politicians and large companies into much needed involvement at grassroots level, enabling children previously oblivious of careers in science to experience and explore this field.
During a conference last month the National Research Foundation has found that South Africa will not be able to compete academically in the global arena if it does not produce more scientists.
Only 1 200 students graduated with a PHD degree in 2005 in South Africa, putting it at the bottom of the list when it comes to students able to contribute to the burgeoning technological demands of the country's economy.
"We are well aware of the problem and are battling to recruit appropriate candidates with the necessary skills just within our company which relies increasingly on cutting edge technology to compete internationally," says André Oberholzer, Group Head Corporate Affairs of Sappi Limited.
Sappi, which is the world's leading producer of coated fine paper and chemical cellulose, is progressively in need of employees with technological knowledge and is heavily funding PROTEC, which brings science and technology to schools struggling to fund projects and education in these subjects.
The 25-year-old project that was started in Soweto by a group of concerned engineers, aims to introduce and guide learners in disadvantaged communities through high school maths, science and technology education and later provide career opportunities in technological fields.
"By supporting PROTEC, we are ensuring that scholars from all walks of life are not only introduced to science and technology, but are actively supported in mastering these subjects from Grade 10 onwards and have the information and support they need to pursue careers in these fields.
"Science is vital for a well-functioning economy, and it is imperative that we close the gap between schools in poorer regions who often don't have the opportunities or resources to introduce their scholars to science and technology," says Oberholzer.
Twelve science and technology ministers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed a protocol at the end of July to improve science and technology co-operation on the continent and the recent ScienceUnlimited show in Pietermaritzburg showed an increased drive to nurture a new generation of scientists and technologists in fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, medical science, space travel, information technology, sports medicine, robotics and laser technology.
"We sponsored 420 learners from the seven KZN branches to attend the show – paying for their entrance fees, transport and meals for the day. In addition, Sappi partnered with PROTEC to provide them the opportunity to have an exhibition stand at the ScienceUnlimited show. It is imperative that children throughout South Africa are introduced to these fields now if we want to have a functioning economy that is able to compete internationally," adds Oberholzer.