Prof. Sue Harrison

Deputy Vice Chancellor Research & Internationalisation | University of Cape Town

Key Quote:

“The juxtaposition of research-intensive universities and challenges like poverty and inequality creates a need to think differently and create affordable solutions. South Africa indeed faces deep challenges, but they are not insurmountable. Technological solutions need to integrate societal impact, behavioural acceptance, and responses to effectively address the challenges.”

AfricaLive: Let’s begin by looking at the University of Cape Town and its identity in 2023, particularly focusing on research and the impact UCT can have in South Africa and on the African continent. 

How do you fit into this research ecosystem, and how would you define the identity of the University of Cape Town?

Prof. Sue Harrison: The University of Cape Town has been carefully considering its identity over the last five years, aiming to position ourselves as a university competing globally, conducting valuable and cutting-edge research, while also recognizing our role in South Africa and our impact on our country and continent.

As we work towards UCT’s vision for 2030, we see ourselves as a university that unleashes human potential towards a fair and just society, particularly in the research space. We aim to unleash knowledge from Africa, redefining and creating a sustainable global future. Our strong focus is on Africa, emphasizing collaboration with people from our continent to develop new knowledge that benefits both our continent and the world. We envision a bidirectional flow of knowledge, challenging the historical one-way flow of technologies.

We value knowledge generated in Africa, giving it the space it deserves. This redefining and creating a sustainable global future positions us as a global knowledge creator, strongly emphasizing sustainability. We align ourselves with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and, equally importantly, with the African Union’s goals, finding a strong convergence between the two frameworks.


AfricaLive: As you say. you’ve been carefully considering your institution’s identity. Increasing collaboration between African universities and stakeholders is essential. Historically at many African universities, ties were stronger with, for example, British and French institutions and at times intra-African collaboration was neglected. What practical steps are being taken to address this and how can you navigate this challenging change in identity?

Prof. Sue Harrison: Embracing the change in identity is intriguing and not seen as a challenge, especially in our environment. It’s vital for us not to lose our Global North partners, but as we frame knowledge relevant to our context and continent, we naturally attract partners within Africa. The establishment of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) has been key, bringing together research-intensive universities across Africa as firm partners. We also collaborate extensively in specific areas like health, climate, property inequality, and mining resources, forming partnerships with various universities across Africa. The flow of students has transformed into a two-way exchange within Africa, a mindset shift that has been significant.


AfricaLive: What are the flagship research projects at UCT that you like to highlight when speaking to an international audience unfamiliar with UCT’s output?

Prof. Sue Harrison: UCT has been strong in health sciences for many years, particularly in infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV, where we rank among the leading institutions globally. We also conduct extensive research in various aspects of heart health, neuroscience, and other fields. Our strength lies in the large population and the critical research areas of infectious diseases, traumatic injury, and pediatric care, where we can delve deeply due to the ample patient base. The integration of basic and clinical sciences allows for rapid application and translation of research findings.


AfricaLive: I’m particularly interested in how partnerships can be formed to address societal, environmental, and economic challenges. How does UCT collaborate with industry and private sector partners? What are the key building blocks or keys to a successful partnership?


Prof. Sue Harrison: Establishing successful partnerships hinges on creating mutual respect and benefits for all parties involved. We emphasize partnerships where there’s value and benefit on both sides. Achieving this balance has been a priority, especially in academic collaborations that span countries with differing wealth levels. Equitable partnerships are crucial to ensure a meaningful and impactful collaboration between academia, industry, and the private sector.

Partnerships are crucial, valuing all aspects that contribute—from funding to study sites to data sharing and agenda-setting. True partnerships set agendas jointly, not unilaterally. We’ve recently launched the Africa Charter with the University of Bristol and Unisa University of South Africa, focusing on equitable partnerships and fostering strong collaborations between global research bodies.

The Conference of Rectors and Vice-Chancellors across African universities immediately endorsed this initiative, emphasizing its critical importance. We strive to move away from past research practices that didn’t fully engage all partners, particularly those from economically challenged countries.


AfricaLive: And partnerships with industry are equally vital to your work? 


Prof. Prof. Sue Harrison: We highly value collaborations in both minerals and the chemicals industry, focusing on catalysis. Much of our research at UCT stems from industry challenges but isn’t confined to it. We seek challenges that industry faces through candid dialogues, aiming for fruitful collaboration while ensuring research freedom. This model has proven highly successful for our university, influencing research and teaching positively.

It’s propelled us into exploring sustainable practices in mining and the hydrogen economy. We’re currently working on exciting projects, such as producing aviation fuel catalytically from CO2, venturing into neutral fuels and carbon-neutral products. It’s an incredibly exciting space.


AfricaLive: Indeed. It’s clear that these complex challenges can’t be tackled by a single organization. How would you encourage industry to think about partnerships and addressing complex challenges?

Prof. Sue Harrison: Engaging with the university can offer fresh perspectives and insights into processes. To begin, identify experts within the university relevant to your area of interest. University websites can often provide this information, or you can reach out to technology transfer officers. Building a relationship is crucial. Start with initial conversations and small-scale joint investigations or desktop studies. As you clarify your objectives, move towards more detailed technology development or understanding, engaging in joint research with a shared agenda. Universities efficiently offer novel knowledge, especially at early technology readiness levels. As you progress, collaborate to advance the technology and transition it to practical applications. The ease of this transition may vary depending on the university department you’re working with.


AfricaLive: Do you agree that there’s room for more collaboration and discussion among different stakeholders?

Prof. Sue Harrison: Absolutely, there’s considerable potential for increased collaboration and dialogue. It’s about discovering how we can be mutually beneficial to each other. 

At UCT, we’re actively establishing advisory boards for many academic departments, particularly those in applied fields. This initiative has been truly wonderful. Industry representatives on these advisory boards provide invaluable insights into the type of graduates they seek to employ, enhancing graduate employability. Simultaneously, they gain a deeper understanding of the research and knowledge generation within these departments, sparking new ideas as they engage with this work. It’s a win-win approach.


AfricaLive: We’ve touched on this topic quite a bit, but it’s crucial to this interview. What do the terms “internationalization” and “Africanization” mean to you?

Prof. Sue Harrison: That’s an interesting question. “Africanization” is a term I approach carefully due to its multiple meanings. It can encompass a focus on viewing things from an African perspective, but it’s essential to be cautious with its interpretation. “Internationalization” revolves around extending our approach, interactions, and partnerships across the world. For me, it involves establishing relationships within Africa and beyond. Another crucial aspect is our stronger focus at UCT on research that holds value for South Africa and the African continent. Understanding the unique challenges and context of our region is vital. It’s about adapting our approaches to the specific context in which we operate.

Looking at the same problem in a different part of the world is a crucial space. For instance, a few years ago, we hosted a summit on the SDGs—the SDGs Africa summit—focused on how we can talk about SDGs and how we want to meet them by 2030. But for us, we need to look at them in terms of how they’ll benefit our society in South Africa and in Africa. Our approach to these solutions will differ from tackling the same problem in the United States or the UK. It’s vital to consider the context in which we’re working to be truly successful.


AfricaLive: I’d like to focus not just on UCT but on South Africa as a nation, specifically in the area of research. Considering South Africa’s place in the global research community, with all the attributes and knowledge present in the nation, what can you aspire for?

Prof. Sue Harrison: South Africa has immense potential in the global research community. We can focus on how resources are utilized, emphasizing nature-based solutions and understanding climate impacts. Our unique context, with a significant portion living informally, provides valuable insights. We have strong research institutions equivalent to universities in wealthier parts of the world, capable of generating knowledge that can make a substantial contribution. The juxtaposition of research-intensive universities and challenges like poverty and inequality creates a need to think differently and create affordable solutions. Our work in health sciences, for instance, looks at affordable technologies to address critical medical needs, like access to surgery without exorbitant costs. We aim to make technology affordable and beneficial for the world as a whole.

Reflecting on your question, the importance of addressing how technology is used to improve quality of life in the context of poverty and inequality is significant. Understanding the societal impact of technology decisions, data usage, and global decarbonization from the perspective of poverty and inequality is crucial. South Africa, given the widespread challenges, can offer critical perspectives and contributions globally. Collaboratively working as an academic community across universities is essential, focusing on collaboration rather than excessive competition.


AfricaLive: You’ve highlighted the environmental and social challenges not only in South Africa but globally. As researchers, you constantly aim to solve problems, making you acutely aware of these challenges. How confident do you feel about South Africa’s future, especially considering the substantial environmental and social challenges the country faces?

Prof. Sue Harrison: South Africa indeed faces deep challenges, but they are not insurmountable. Technological solutions need to integrate societal impact, behavioural acceptance, and responses to effectively address the challenges. We’re bringing together researchers from various disciplines to work on these problems, focusing on behavioural and economic responses. 

For instance, in the context of vaccines, understanding people’s responses, uptake, and how transmission occurs is critical. If we approach problems through co-creation and collaborative efforts, tailoring solutions to our unique context, we can make a meaningful impact. It requires the will, collaboration, and joint effort to navigate through these challenges.


AfricaLive: Is there anything else you’d like to add related to the subject we’ve been discussing that I haven’t asked about specifically?

Prof. Sue Harrison: I believe we’ve covered a lot. One final point I’d like to emphasize is the paramount importance of using our global knowledge base and tailoring it to our unique environments. The more we can ask diverse questions and adapt knowledge, the more we can make the meaningful differences we’ve been discussing. It’s crucial to value everyone’s context and knowledge equitably. I recall speaking at a conference about handling post-mining environments and pollution in my discipline. Someone questioned the need for this work when mines close and people move away. In Africa, it’s different—people live on the edge of these environments, dealing with the toxic effects. 

We must address problems where they are and find solutions there; this perspective will make a significant difference for us all.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.