The Department of Science and Technology presented its corporate strategy and budget allocation for 2009/10 for consideration and approval by the Committee. It provided its key strategic goals and the corporate strategy framework that emphasized the importance of technology innovation in accelerating economic growth, job creation and poverty alleviation. This included an outline of key policy developments beginning in 1996 with the conception of the National System of Innovation (NSI) which evolved into a ten year innovation plan that would now be implemented using innovation instruments such as the Technology and Innovation Agency (TIA) and the newly enacted Intellectual Property from Publicly Financed Research Act. In its strategic management framework, the Department spelt out the specific areas of DST involvement across the NSI and its role across the innovation chain where basic research was translated into new knowledge and technological products. The Department had experienced steady growth in its resources and this had created optimum conditions for the establishment of innovation instruments that would translate into beneficial products and services.
The Committee's discussion of the presentation focused on the Department's R&D outputs and some of the challenges that the Department was facing. Some members asked the Department for numerical data which measured performance against the Department's strategic objectives. Other members were interested in the progress of some of the Department's innovation programmes such as the use of nanoscience in the development of a single capsule for the treatment of Tuberculosis (TB) and the role of space science in dealing with climate change. The DST responded that it was in the process of developing ways of measuring the contribution made by science and technology to economic growth since by nature, the results of the Department's work took long periods to reflect in measurable ways that could be presented using statistics. The Department had made considerable progress with the development of the TB capsule, however, they still required assistance from the Department of Health in registering the capsule with the Medicines Control Council. The Department was focused on developing appropriate space technology platforms and would promote the use of space applications for socio-economic benefits. Much of the Committee's discussion and deliberation focused on the DST's innovation instruments and their role in translating research and development inputs into commercially viable products and services that would also serve the nation's socio-economic needs. One of the challenges highlighted by the Department was how to attract a younger generation of researchers, scientists and innovators to a field where current levels of remuneration were unattractive.
Department of Science and Technology on Strategic Plan and Budget Vote 31
Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General, presented the Department's corporate strategy for 2009/10. The presentation provided anticipated high-level goals and a strategic overview of what the DST would be focusing its attention on for the next two to three years. It provided some outputs from the work that had been done by the Department in recent years. Performance indicators would also be given as well as the DST's organizational structure and its human capital and financial resources.
Dr Mjwara pointed out the corporate strategy was aligned to the Medium-Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) which emphasized the importance of technology innovation in speeding up economic growth and creation of decent work and poverty alleviation. The MTSF also emphasized the need to build on the current range of strategies and support programmes and support programmes already supporting innovation in firms, research and development in the private and public sectors with emphasis on biotechnologies and pharmaceuticals, space science technology, energy security and other opportunities presented by climate change. In this regard the appropriate, continuous and effective implementation of the 2001 Cabinet endorsed ten-year innovation plan would be crucial.
Dr Mjwara explained the evolution of policy and strategy that had guided the work of the Department as reflected in the slide presentation. He also explained the Department's work in relation to other institutions in the slide presentation referring to the innovation chain. This traced the origins of research from basic research which was then translated into applied research that was then changed into developing technology before being placed into the market place as a final product. There was a need for the development of human capital in the research arena. The DST was expected to perform the role of human capital development across the whole value chain. One of the key things that the Department was trying to do was to translate basic and applied research into useful products and services that would benefit the country.
The DST Strategic Management Framework was also highlighted in the presentation to identify specific areas of involvement for the Department. This was in order to point out areas that fell within DST responsibility and those that did not. Certain standard technology-based services such as the weather services or police forensic laboratory services did not require the development of new technologies. Thus in cases where there was use of these standard technologies, there was no need for the DST's involvement. Other areas required collaboration with established leaders in a particular field whilst in certain areas such as biotechnology, which was an emerging area, the DST was required to take the lead. For example the DST had been working on the development of a single capsule to combat TB using nanotechnology.
The presentation also highlighted the DST's science and technology missions, based on geographic advantage, which included; astronomy, human paleontology, biodiversity and antarctic research. These missions also included key technology platforms such as advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and poverty alleviation and were also focused on leveraging resource based industries through the development of new knowledge based industries. The presentation also touched on theme of national research development strategy to illustrate performance indicators such as human capital, technical progress, business performance, wealth creation and quality of life.
The DST's principle goals were to develop the innovation capacity of the science system and contribute to socio-economic development; to develop South Africa's knowledge-generation capacity; to develop appropriate human capital for research, development and innovation (RDI); to build world-class RDI infrastructure; and to position South Africa as a strategic international RDI partner and destination.
Some of the recent outputs flowing from the Biotech Innovation Centres (BICs) had included the launch of a the National Biosafety Platform; the successful completion of a a second year of the Cyclotron Mutagenesis project, (funded by PlanBio), by the African Centre for Crop Investment (based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal) in collaboration with the RIKEN institute in Japan, to generate variants of maize, millet and sorghum.
The Committee was also informed about the Innovation Honours Bursary programme which had supported 271 students in 2008 and the research professional development programme which had benefited 197 young professionals. The Innovation Honours Bursary programme had come out of the realization that there was inadequate funding for Honours level study and was an initiative that aimed to encourage further study beyond undergraduate level. Centres of excellence (COEs) had attracted 395 postgraduate students and produced a total of 220 peer reviewed research articles. A total of 125 unemployed SET graduates had also been employed at 22 science centres.
The principles informing the 10 year innovation plan were that:
- it articulated an innovation path to contribute fundamentally towards the transformation of the economy to a knowledge economy
- it was informed by triage in decision-making in terms of focus on SA's areas of competence: global objectives; societal transformation; and critical mass
- it was based on a premise that government's growth targets require a significant investment in innovation.
In terms of medium term initiatives, the DST intended to establish and operationalize the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO) in order to address the innovation chasm and facilitate the exploration of basic research outputs for socio-economic developments. The DST also intended to address the fragmentation of funding instruments that were currently evident in the National System of Innovation (NSI). They would also establish the partnerships between government, academia and industry in respect of the translation of a greater proportion of R&D into technology-based products and services with the potential for commercialization.
The presentation highlighted innovation instruments:
- The Intellectual Property from Publicly Financed Institutions Bill which had now been signed into law
- Offices of Technology transfer
- Professional courses for managers on Innovation Management
- A technology nursery
- The Technology Innovation Agency
- Centres of competence.
The DST intended to develop appropriate space technology platforms and promote the use of space applications for socio-economic benefits. It would provide strategic direction towards the construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) demonstrator telescope and other activities to ensure that South Africa was well positioned to host the SKA. The Department would also drive strategic interventions to simulate innovation towards sustainable energy security for South Africa and the region and provide strategic direction in building the bioeconomy in South Africa through the National Biotechnology Strategy and Centres of Competence (CoCs)
The DST would continue to participate in international engagements and continue to play a role in the Group Earth Observation (GEO) as well as deepening regional integration in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) to support the implementation of the Consolidated Science and Technology Plan of Action (CPA) and the SADC Protocol on Science, Technology and Innovation. The DST would also continue to support the SADC desk.
The DST 's medium term initiatives also included leveraging international support for human capital development, knowledge generation; leveraging of foreign direct investment; functional bilateral relationships; the leveraging of access to financial skills and big science facilities; and knowledge infrastructure and research excellence using instruments such as the Science and technology Agreements Fund.
The DST aimed to secure competitiveness in the forestry industry cluster and would continue to introduce and promote innovative technology and management systems to support the creation of sustainable jobs and wealth opportunities in areas of deprivation and, with a focus on sustainability, to contribute to issues of human settlement. In marine aquaculture, the Department wanted to demonstrate and pilot technical, environmental and commercial viability through initiatives such as the Western Cape Small-Scale Trout Farmer Project and the Hondeklip Bay Abalone Grow-Out Pilot. The DST would also support community Bio-Prospecting of scientifically proven plants to promote the commercial production of indigenous herbs that were scientifically proven to possess medicinal properties.
The Committee was shown a table reflecting performance indicators in terms the figures of research and development funding from foreign sources; the total number of centres of excellence; the number of interns supported at science councils and higher education institutions; and the total number of flagship projects supporting strategic areas of research and development. There was also a table showing the DST's selected output targets. For instance, astronomy and space engineering human capital developed in bidding process (output) was measured by the number of students graduated (indicator) against a benchmark of 600 (target).
The Department's financial resources were illustrated in table form as well as using pie charts and a bar graph. The Director-General stated that the bulk of the money was transferred to Science Councils and Research Institutes as shown in the different categories: research, development and innovation; international co-operation and resources; human capital and knowledge systems; and socio-economic partnership. The statistics showed that the budget had grown over the past five years. An organogram of the Department's organizational structure was also provided as well as a list of the public entities that reported to the Department.
In conclusion, the DST's medium term outputs were driven by the National Research and Development Strategy and the Ten Year Innovation Plan. The Department believed that performance was satisfactory as had been shown in some of the highlights. There was steady growth in resources and the Department thought that the time was right to establish innovation instruments that would translate into useful products and services. The Department would continue focusing on people and the skills that were required to innovate and to ensure that public entities were aligned to implement the innovation plan.
Mr P Smith (IFP) asked, considering that he was new to the Committee, whether there was a process by which the committee's members would familiarize themselves with the Department.
Mr N Ngcobo (ANC) responded that there would be an effort as was the usual practice at the beginning of the five year term, for the Department to conduct a workshop to give members an idea of the sort of issues that they dealt with over a period of two or three days. This was what would be provided as orientation to members.
Mr Smith thanked the Director-General for his presentation and commented that this was one of those departments that looked like it would be a real “feel good department” as opposed to one split by ideological divisions or screaming, raging, physical rows. He quoted the Minister's written comments on the work of the department as a whole: “ ...in this regard we will measure success by the level to which science and technology play a driving role in enhancing proactivity, economic growth and socio-economic development...” He commented that this all sounded very laudable, but the question was to what extent these objectives formed part of the benchmark provided by the department in the presentation. He wanted to know if there was some form of statistical measure such as contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to show what the department had done in enhancing economic growth.
Dr Mjwara responded that there was a unit headed by Ms Marjorie Pyoos, Deputy-Director General, that devised the indicators that they needed to develop. The department had commissioned the Human Sciences Research Council to develop ways of directly measuring how economic growth could be directly attributed to science and technology including productivity. Although they thought it could be done, it was not going to be direct as experience had shown. It was not possible to directly attribute this investment (in science and technology) to economic growth although over time it would become feasible. He referred the Committee to the presentation slide on page 5 of the document headed 2009/10 DST Corporate Strategy. The indices that the department was proposing were human capital, technical progress and business performance. However there would be many inputs that would be required in order to track some of these indices. Wealth creation was measurable by counting the number of science and technology start-up companies that had been spun out or using the number of patents that were being registered by innovators. The last ten years of the patent portfolio, however, revealed that South Africa had not done very well in this as the patent file had remained relatively flat. It was for this reason that they were beginning to build innovation capacity to bridge this chasm.
Ms Marjorie Pyoos added her input on the issue of productivity. She commented that the DST was not that type of Department where there was a requirement, for instance, to ensure that there were enough beds in hospitals. It would have been easier for the Department if they could measure service delivery in this way. However, when one invested in science and technology, the problem was that there was a whole lot more happening beside the money that had been invested. At the end of the day, when there was an invention or a discovery was made, one could not actually prove that it was only the research and development (R&D) that had led to that. It was for this reason that Department could only associate themselves with successes through proxies such as the number of publications made or patents registered. The DST conducted an input R&D survey once a year to measure how much had been spent. The DST also conducted an Innovation Survey (IS) on an annual basis. The most recent had shown that South Africa companies rated more favorably than their European counterparts. This stunning result had left the Department in doubt about whether they could release these findings. But the proof had been in the statistics which showed a shift in the number of products that had been improved on whether by developing a completely new product or through an incremental increase to that product. This was an indication that companies were innovating their products in search for the export market. The other contribution that she wanted to make, was about the practical interventions that they had put in place and how they were faring in terms of those instruments. An example was the role played by engineering centres at universities in assisting small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in the field with research and development expertise.
Mr Smith asked that since the presentation had focused on future developments, whether the department could tell the Committee about their successes and failures over the past 15 years.
Dr Mjwara responded that one should not really talk of failure whilst they were still in the process of trying to succeed. His view was that the Department was faced with challenges as opposed to experiencing failure. One of their biggest challenges was to increase the number of researchers in the country. Most young people when faced with a career decision upon completing matric, would likely choose a high paying job as opposed to following a passion such as science and technology. If the Department was to attract young people to science and engineering professions, then they had to find ways of paying people better since at the moment they were not paying people attractively enough. In terms of successes there had been a battery operated electric prototype vehicle that had been unveiled in France and Cape Town and the Department was now in the process of looking for a commercialization route for this electric vehicle. Strangely enough, South Africa was now receiving invitations from international partners so that they could be involved in the further development of this electric vehicle. The Department had also funded through the Innovation Fund, a company which had come out of the University of Pretoria which was looking at the possibility of adding value in zirconium. In the Biotechnology area, the Department had spun out a couple of companies some of which had been highlighted during the presentation. The Department had also initiated an incubation programme that was geared to have SMEs stand on their own two feet. Statistics were available to show the number of companies that had been set up. The Department had therefore been able to make meaningful interventions on the science and technology aspect.
Mr Smith asked a question pertaining to a story in the Cape Times about the National Research Foundation (NRF) only allocating funding for Blue Skies research and not to existing doctoral students. He asked what the logic was behind that.
Dr Mjwara responded that he had not read the article in the Cape Times. There was a specific reason why they followed that approach. The Department had identified certain areas which they thought were in line with the development strategy. The NRF was responsible for the rolling out of the research chair and for professional development programmes. Dr Mjwara felt that newspaper articles only dealt with one side of the issue and did not provide a holistic view.
Dr Mjwara also noted that the Department had an effective university system in place that was doing reasonably well. They had a range of instruments as shown in the diagram of the innovation chain such as the NRF. However if one wanted research to be relevant to socio-economic challenges, funding research at universities alone without additional instruments would not automatically translate into useful products and services that could address whatever challenges that the country was facing. It was for that reason that the Department was now introducing this range of instruments such as the IPR Bill that had now been signed into law. There was need for an intellectual property regime that allowed trade to happen so that when a university was funded by the public sector there was an exchange of commodities and knowledge in one form or the other. The IPR Bill provided that framework within which universities could trade with all those who were funding them - be it local, regional or international donors. One of the problems had been the leakage of Intellectual Property (IP) from South Africa. The IPR Bill through the Offices of Technology Transfer would help universities to think about the fact that publication was not the only form of protection for their knowledge but could also contribute towards higher patenting levels. The Department was also introducing a Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) as a funding instrument that would nurture and work with the publicly financed institutions in the journey to translating research into useful end products. This was a very long journey as one could work on an innovation for years before it became a viable product for commercialization. The TIA would work with researchers and entrepreneurs by providing a supporting environment where research results could be translated into useful products.
Mr Z Ntuli (ANC) asked about the sites of this research and development at universities, that is, centres of excellence, whether there were any challenges in establishing them at each and every university countrywide.
Dr Mjwara responded that the centres of excellence were in specific areas. If a center of excellence was in a particular area, then institutions would be asked to submit proposals and it was on the basis of such proposals that the NRF and the Department would look at whether the proposal would be able to achieve them. Therefore the location of the centres of excellence was not subject to debate but was theme based. It would be up to the university that came up with the best proposal to address the challenges that the centres of excellence were meant to overcome. There were about three centres of excellence that were rolled out by the Department in biotechnology, another one on health and modeling of diseases.
Ms M Shinn (DA) asked what impact the global recession had on research funding, and if there would be any cut-backs in funding from global research partners.
Dr Mjwara responded that what global research funders had done was to see whether they could find a silver lining to this cloud. Through private sector stimulus packages there would be higher investment in R&D to allow them to get out of this dark cloud with technologies and products that would be ready for the new market. For example a car manufacturer had been offered a stimulus package for R&D provided that it would be applied to developing a new generation of vehicles that did not rely on traditional fuels but required alternative energy sources such as hydrogen fuel. The DST therefore believed that there were enormous opportunities for the Department to invest in new technologies.
Ms Shinn asked about the expenditure estimates on the graphs showing a huge rise in administration costs over the three year period. She wanted to know what justification there was for this jump in costs.
Mr Dan Moagi, the DST's Senior Programme Manager, responded that there were a number of factors that had influenced their administration costs. Firstly, there had been restrictions imposed by Treasury in the budget for salaries to remain at 6%. This had forced the Department to make cuts in their budget to maintain that. Over and above that, the Department had moved to a new venue where the cost of a power plant had to be included in the administration budget. So these had been some of the reasons why the budget had escalated.
Ms S Kalyan (DA) asked about underspending in terms of the budget. She wanted to know about the status of unspent money at present and whether it was still within the department’s domain or if it had moved elsewhere.
Dr Mjwara responded that when the Department had embarked on the journey to develop an AIDS vaccine, there had been very clear goals which required research to be conducted to develop candidate vaccines. As part of that development they were also required to develop research capacity. These candidate vaccines would then be taken through a pipeline to check which ones were likely to provide the required vaccine. The Department had asked that the project be reviewed almost a year and half ago by external reviewers. The result of that review was that that the project had shifted from these two main objectives. The second part of the survey was to take those candidate vaccines and have trials to test the efficacy of these trials. The funding arrangements were then divided into two parts between the DST and the DOH. The Department's concern had been that it was the mandate of another government department to fund clinical trials.
Ms Kalyan (DA) asked what the staff capacity shortage was like in the Department and whether they had considered placing unfilled vacancies on the scarce skills register.
Dr Mjwara indicated that the Department had a target of between 8-10% although this figure was always shifting as a result of constant resignations at the same time that new positions were being filled. He responded that the Department worked closely with the Department of Home Affairs to ensure that they had a list of the skills that were required from the field of engineering and technology. However, the second part was long-term sustainable intervention. The Department was of the view that they had not done well in South Africa in terms of encouraging people to do Masters in Engineering. Other countries that had done well on the patents side had done this very well. There was a need to discuss ways of incentivising people in engineering to do masters level study.
Ms Kalyan (DA) asked whether the fixed asset register had now been completed.
Ms Malekgolane Malapane, Chief Finance Officer in the DST, replied that this was important to the Department and the Auditor-General (A-G) simply because assets were representative of the resources in a government department. During the 2007 financial year, the Department had not received any queries from the A-G regarding the asset register. That query had been raised in the 2006 financial year. In the following year the DST had ensured that they responded to the query and ensured that they had a complete asset register. The issue had not been raised in the 2008 financial year meaning to say that the Department had taken care of the problem. The Department had prioritized the management of assets as one of their risk areas - to maintain the register and keep it up to date.
Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) asked about the investment leverage from abroad, if there were any conditions attached.
Dr Mjwara responded that the EU provided research funding in what was known as Framework Programmes (FP) which because it was R&D funding had no strings attached. All that the partners who participated in the consortia in each of these programmes had to do was to agree on benefit sharing.
Ms Ngcobo wanted to know, apart from targeting learners, what was being done about demystifying science and technology for ordinary South Africa citizens.
Dr Mjwara responded that the DST had decided to expand the National Science Week (NSW) that had been spoken about in the presentation so that it did not just focus on schools but also included the public in general. There were programmes that targeted the public and the Department had also approached the NRF to broaden the mandate of their public awareness agency so that it covered more than just schools.
Ms Ngcobo commented that she had been quite interested in the development of a Nanotech capsule for the treatment of Tuberculosis (TB). She asked if the capsule was already available and whether it was now in use.
Dr Mjwara responded that the capsule was available on a trial basis but not to the public because the DST had asked for assistance from the Department of Health to help with the registration for the use of the nano capsule with the Medicines Control Council. Animal testing had commenced to see how it would work before progressing to human testing.
Mr Ngcobo (ANC) also asked about the Nanotech programme. He wanted to know how far the programme had developed in the department .
Dr Mjwara responded that there were specific programmes at the universities on nanotechnology. Although he could not recall the figures it was a sizeable programme. The DST had also set up two nanotechnology innovation centres, one at the CSIR that looked at the development and application of nanotechnology in the manufacturing sector and another that looked at the development of nanotechnology in the biosphere.
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