Phil Mjwara, director-general of the Department of Science and Technology. Picture: THE TIMES
Phil Mjwara, director-general of the Department of Science and Technology. Picture: THE TIMES

Brexit poses no immediate threat to South African ties with scientists in the UK or the European Union, and may open up new funding opportunities for local researchers, according to Department of Science and Technology director-general Phil Mjwara.

"We don’t think Brexit will have a huge impact on collaboration between British and South African scientists. In fact, since the announcement (of Britain’s plans to quit the EU) they have been looking for other forms of collaboration," he said on Monday evening, on the sidelines of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2018 in Toulouse.

ESOF is Europe’s biggest interdisciplinary science meeting, and the week-long event runs until July 14.

"Since Brexit we have seen a huge interest in pushing up the Newton Fund, and bringing in other commonwealth countries," said Mjwara.

The Newton Fund is a UK initiative that has committed £735m until 2021 to build research partnerships, with matched commitments from participating countries.

Mjwara’s confidence stands in stark contrast to the message EuroScience president Lauritz Holm-Nielsen delivered at the ESOF opening ceremony, when he described Britain’s plans to exit the EU as "a black cloud" on the free movement of scientists, threatening research collaboration.

EuroScience is a European nonprofit organisation for scientists.

Holm-Nielsen said the cutting-edge science taking place at European universities depended on the "free movement of brains".

"We must all work hard to ensure European research in future includes UK researchers and institutions," he said.

South African scientists have a longstanding relationship with the European Union’s key funding instrument for collaborative research, known as the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

The current funding round, known as Horizon 2020, has set aside €79bn for research projects. SA is one of only a handful of non-EU countries that participate in the programme, and has so far received R400m in funding from Horizon 2020, said Mjwara. Unlike the Newton Fund, Horizon 2020 does not require partner countries to match the resources it provides.

Mjwara said the department had recently allocated R36m, channelled via the National Research Fund, to help scientists at historically disadvantaged institutions apply for international research grants and participate in cutting-edge research.