File photo: Minister Naledi Pandor. Photo:Tracey Adams

Johannesburg - South Africa needed more women scientists to help reduce poverty and solve health problems, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said on Friday.

“As in many other parts of the developing and developed world, women's scientific skills and abilities are still very much under-utilised in our country,” she said at a business breakfast in Johannesburg hosted by The New Age.

“We have to do more to increase women's access to scientific knowledge, especially if we are to tackle the development challenges that face the most vulnerable in society.”

She was concerned that women scientists received “far fewer” research grants from the National Research Foundation than men.

Her department wanted to help build a knowledge-based economy, to help create sustained economic growth.

Pandor said astronomy had the potential to encourage young people to become scientists.

“In our experience, astronomy is proving to be an unrivalled instrument for science education in terms of the excitement it generates among our youth. Astronomy not only benefits human capital development. The development of research infrastructures is also significantly boosted.”

She said she was working with the department of basic education to ensure that schools in rural areas had laboratories. Treasury had provided significant funding for this.

South Africa's having been selected as the major location for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope would change Africa's character, she said.

“Who comes to Africa to actually do their best research? People come here to examine us, to find out how poor we are, to look at diseases that we have. They never come here to say 'I want to do Nobel science work'.

“But they are going to be coming to do that with the SKA. An absolutely different image of the continent. Not here to exploit our diamonds, our gold, our platinum, but here to say I want to do iconic research on an iconic instrument.”

Pandor said the SKA was an important project, but skills needed to be produced in many other fields in science.

She urged researchers to remain in their field. There was a need to train the next generation of academics as the current one was getting old.

“They academics are ageing, they are male and they tend to be white. I am not being racist... So we need to ensure that we have more women, more young black people that are being prepared to take up positions of teaching and research in our universities.”

Pandor said her department had started several initiatives to ensure science and technology contributed to job creation in the country.

One example was a R1.6 billion project to establish the first pharmaceutical plant to make ingredients for antiretroviral medicines in South Africa. - Sapa