First “Science Oscar” for SAPRIN

Co-Directors of the South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN), Professors Mark Collinson and Kobus Herbst have been recognized for advancing the availability, management and use of data for research.

The duo received the ‘Data for Research Award’ at the recently live streamed gala event of the 22nd prestigious NSTF-South32 Awards. Known as the ‘Science Oscars’ of South Africa, the awards are a celebration of South African excellence and outstanding contribution to SET and innovation through a flagship project of the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF).

They were awarded for collectively conceiving, developing and implementing SAPRIN – a national research platform that aims to produce up-to-date information on health and socio-economic wellbeing that is representative of South Africa's population for scientific analysis, embedding research projects and policy evaluation. The Network is hosted by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and falls under the ambit of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap – a programme of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).

Currently, the Network has five health and demographic surveillance system (HDSS) nodes namely: MRC/Wits-Agincourt in Mpumalanga, DIMAMO at University of Limpopo, and AHRI linked to University of KwaZulu-Natal. The other two recently launched new nodes will be starting in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

The Gauteng node, known as the GRT-INSPIRED will be run by Wits and the Universities of Johannesburg and Pretoria and the planned sites will be in Atteridgeville and Melusi in the north-western part of the Tshwane Metro, and in Hillbrow at the very centre of Johannesburg. In the Western Cape that is expected to span two areas Nomzamo and Bishop Lavis in the City of Cape Town metropole. The aim is to have a minimum of seven nodes across the country.

Both with extensive experience in population research, Collinson and Herbst conceptualized this model which provides a harmonised, distributed, national platform for population research. A longitudinal collection of population, health, and socio-economic data for geographically defined sections of poorer communities. Individual and household indicators routinely collected include vital events: births and deaths; residence and migration; socio-economic status; disease monitoring; and measures of wellbeing represented by labour status, education, and social protection.

On receiving the award, Prof Collinson said the NSTF Awards play a good role in making the public aware of the value of science for the country and that they showcase the contributions of government, research councils, universities, NGOs, and the private sector to advance knowledge for human development and well-being. “Awards like these are great promoters of science in society and helps to see how important it is for human development. At SAPRIN, we are striving to build health and population research and knowledge that gives benefit right from everyday people to government setting policies to a wide-ranging research community” he said.  

Prof Herbst added that the accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible without the many years of efforts by the surveillance teams and scientists at the nodes – not to mention the support of the communities where the surveillance was done. “I would also like to thank our funder, the Department of Science and Innovation and our host institution, the South African Medical Research Council,” he concluded.

Although this is the first SAPRIN award since its inception in 2017, individually the two are no stranger to the scientific community and have countless local and international accolades under their names. They believe that wining this award is an important national recognition for SAPRIN and they expect more and more researchers to use its data. Since the release of its first dataset last year, there has been interest from numerous national government departments and research entities eager to learn more about it which led to new relationships emerging between SAPRIN and other national public research institutions, such as Statistics South Africa and the Department of Social Development. SAPRIN has also recently finalised a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Statistics South Africa, which will ensure mutual benefit from a collaboration that will see national data routinely validated by longitudinal data.

SAMRC Vice President, Prof Jeffrey Mphahlele congratulated them, saying that the SAMRC is truly privileged to serve researchers in the country.

“SAPRIN is a national asset, a jewel to the country, and is proactively making exceptional contribution in addressing the quadruple burden of disease facing South Africa and the region, including the current Covid-19 pandemic. We are extremely proud of Professors Collinson and Herbst for spearheading the birth and growth of SAPRIN” Mphahlele concluded.