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Issue 3, February 2015

PUB - Public Understanding of Biotechnology
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A proud PUB programme celebrates a decade of science communication

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Dr Manjusha Sunil, Head of the PUB programme, hopes that Blazing a biotechnology trail will promote South African biotechnology awareness. Image provided by Dr Sunil.

The Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) programme recently celebrated its tenth birthday with the launch of Blazing a biotechnology trail, a collection of profiles of scientists that have contributed to the South African biotechnology sector. The book’s production process was overseen by Dr Manjusha Sunil, Head of the PUB programme, which is based at the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA).

PUB was established in 2003, by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), as a way to raise awareness about the power of biotech to stimulate socioeconomic development.

“The idea behind the book was to celebrate the milestone PUB had reached in 2013,” says Sunil. “We thought we should do something that recognises biotechnologists in the country, aimed not only at academics, but at the lay public as well.”

The book was officially launched at a ceremony in Johannesburg in November 2014, but production started in early 2013 with the selection of an adjudication team. Jennifer Thomson, professor of molecular and cell biology at UCT, was selected as lead adjudicator.  She is a stalwart of the SA agricultural biotech sector, with decades of experience and renown. She also has several published books to her name and serves on a number of national and international committees.

Other members of the panel included Ben Durham (Director: Bio-innovation at the DST), Stephanie Burton (Vice-Principal: Research and Postgraduate Education at the University of Pretoria, and Sunil’s former academic supervisor for her MSc), and the late Helen Laburn (formerly Dean of Research at Witwatersrand University), along with Sunil herself.

“The judges were chosen based on their expertise in the different theme areas in the call for nominations,” says Sunil. “We felt we should go along with the key themes in the recently-launched Bio-Economy Strategy, which are health, industry and agriculture.” Because PUB is principally a public engagement programme, they included biotechnology communication as an additional theme.

Three months of nominations at the end of January 2014 yielded almost 40 candidates for inclusion in the book, in two categories: upcoming researchers (with an age limit of 35) and established researchers. The candidates were evaluated against criteria such as number of publications, collaborations, experience, and contributions to the field. In these evaluations, PUB looked at both local and international contributions to biotechnology.

“When we got to the second round of nominations, it was a very long and tough meeting. We had many well-known people in the sector that were nominated who do very relevant work, but we had to think about how we define biotechnology, and whether what they do is really biotech. That was very tough.”

After two rounds of evaluation, 25 researchers were selected for profiling, but then the process hit a bit of a bump. “Finding a suitable writer was a challenge; the first few stages went smoothly, but when we needed actual content, we couldn’t find a writer,” says Sunil, remembering her stress levels at the time. “At one point, I thought the book would probably take another two years.”

Then, she says, ‘Clinton the Miracle’ happened.

That would be Clinton Wittstock, a freelance writer and photographer from Cape Town. Sunil wanted the stories to be accessible and entertaining to all audiences, and she says that after one conversation with Clinton she knew he was the right author for the job.

“I think he has just done brilliantly. He had a thorough understanding of what we wanted, and he delivered a fine product,” she says.

PUB has received plenty of positive feedback from both local and international biotechnology researchers and institutions, as well as several requests for copies of the book from other African and European countries. This year, PUB will distribute the book to South African universities and research institutions to ensure it reaches as wide an audience as possible.

With Blazing a biotechnology trail successfully behind them, what’s next for PUB? Sunil says the focus for 2015 shifts onto another big project: a survey into the public perceptions of biotechnology in South Africa.

This will be a follow-up to PUB’s first public perception survey, in 2004. “At that time we found that a large percentage of the SA public were not well-informed about biotechnology and its applications, and were undecided about controversial topics like stem cells, cloning and GM foods. Eleven years down the line, we hope to see a much more informed public.”

PUB will also host dialogue sessions around key topics in biotechnology in 2015, hoping to better inform South Africans about such controversial issues.

Dr Manjusha Sunil has been Programme Head for the PUB public engagement programme since 2008. She obtained a PhD in biotechnology from Free State University in 2004.

You can download the digital version of Blazing a biotechnology trail here. You can read a review of the book here, and the profile of Peter Rose is featured in this edition of the newsletter.

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Department of Science and Technology & NRF SAASTA The PUB Programme is an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and is implemented by SAASTA. The mandate of PUB is to promote a clear, balanced understanding of the potential of biotechnology and to ensure broad public awareness, dialogue and debate about biotechnology and its current and potential applications. For more information visit or contact, Tel: 012 392 9300 or Fax: 012 320 7803.

The articles in this newsletter have been reviewed by independent experts through SAASTA’s Scientific Editorial Process. For more information please visit

The PUB newsletter is an initiative of the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) programme.
The newsletter is developed by ScienceLink.

NRF | SAASTA Department of Science and Technology