Science & Technology Portfolio Committee Review of Orientation Workshop and Five-Year Strategic Plan

Science and Technology

18 August 2009
Chairperson: Mr N Ncgobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Chairperson noted that although the Committee had recently held an orientation workshop and had prepared a draft Strategic Plan, the Committee membership had since changed, and that Members therefore should review the issues. He indicated that Members would be given the Committee Section guidelines on developing a Strategic Plan, the guidelines for selecting members for delegations, and noted that a maximum of two overseas oversight trips was allowed. It was important to finalise the Plan in order to set the budget. He noted that although the Strategic Plan had to have some degree of flexibility, for instance, to cover rural visits or unforeseen events, there was some difficulty in changing the budget.

A Member suggested that an oversight visit be undertaken to a project in
Pietermaritzburg that was undertaking research on drought-resistant plants. The Department of Science and Technology was still to provide an action list with focus areas for oversight by the Committee. Once the entities’ Annual Reports had been tabled, each entity would make a presentation to the Committee, and further oversight visits might arise from this. The most pressing issues was that of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), and Members suggested that an oversight visit be undertaken with other Portfolio Committees, such as the Committee on Energy and the Committee on Public Enterprises, both of whom had substantial input, and that the Researchers provide background documentation. Suggestions were made on oversight visits to Russia for the Satellite Launch in September 2009, a possible visit to the Indigenous Knowledge Centre in Pietermaritzburg, oversight into the National Marine Strategy, investigations into the launch of the electric car, and its use by Government departments as part of the South African innovation programme, an oversight visit to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and trips to Sutherland, and to the Medical Research Council, to investigate the new developments in HIV medication. Further suggestions were made for oversight visits to Denel and Armscor. The Chairperson felt that oversight trips to India and Brazil, and possibly some of the Asian economies, may prove more fruitful than visits to developed countries.
Other issues identified as needing attention by the Committee included the need to deal with the vacant posts for the Space Agency Board, the possibility of becoming further involved with the Department of Trade and Industry, including attendance at its September Convention, the need to consider and build awareness of projects at community grass-roots levels, and climate change. Once the five-year Strategic Plan had been finalised, all the finer details of oversight trips could be attended to. It was noted that this would be further discussed and finalised at the next meeting, with input from Members. The next meeting would also finalise the delegation that would attend a Parliamentary session in North Korea, which would not form part of the two overseas oversight visits.

Meeting report

The Chairperson suggested that the draft Five-Year Strategic Programme be reviewed by the Committee, especially in light of the fact that the membership of the Committee had been substantially changed since the last meeting. Four new members had been added, while four of the previous Members had been assigned to other Committees, and would no longer be part of this one. This posed a challenge, since the new Members had not had the opportunity to attend the Committee’s orientation workshop.  They would need to get the support from other, more established members.

The Chairperson said that the issues raised at the orientation workshop would be important in formulating the Committee’s five-year Strategic Plan. The guidelines provided by the Committee Section on developing a five-year strategic plan would be distributed to all Members. He noted that a maximum of two overseas oversight trips would be provided for. The details of these oversight tours must be identified in the Strategic Plan, so that a budget could be allocated for them, and once the Plan had been ratified, the overseas trips would be secured.

The Chairperson also noted that the Committee had not yet been briefed by the entities falling within its portfolio, and this would need to be done.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee had received an invitation from the Republic of North Korea for a visit in October 2009, and must discuss if it should accept the invitation and, if so, how many Committee Members would attend. The formula for determining how many ruling and opposition party members would be included in the delegation had been set out in the Parliamentary guidelines, and would be adhered to. 

The Chairperson reviewed some of the outcomes of the previous meetings, and noted that the Committee Researcher had provided documentation reviewing the pertinent issues that had emerged from a five-year review of the work of the previous Portfolio Committee, and had also identified challenges and issues to be addressed over the next five-year period.

Ms M Shinn (DA) asked for clarity regarding the purpose of the current meeting, and asked if it should endeavour to provide a time frame for attending to key issues and challenges.

The Chairperson responded that indeed that was part of the purpose, but that the meeting would also give the opportunity for Members to raise any pertinent issues that had emerged from their recent visits to their constituencies. .

Ms Shinn commented that it would be important and informative to make an oversight visit to the Pietermaritzburg, where research had been undertaken on drought-resistant plants. This research could provide some important insights regarding innovation. However, the cost of the flights for this particular visit could prove too high.

The Chairperson responded that he had recently communicated with the Chief Executive Officer involved with this project in Pietermaritzburg. The Chief Executive Officer felt that it would be important for the Committee to be aware of the work that was being undertaken on developing drought-resistant plants, and it may well have important applications that the Committee would need to investigate.

Ms Shanaaz Isaacs, Committee Secretary, commented that after the orientation workshop, the Director General (DG) of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had agreed to provide an action list with focus areas for oversight by the Committee. This document had not been received in time to present at this meeting, but would provide Members with important information that would help them to develop a framework for the pertinent oversight trips.

The Chairperson commented that once the entities’ Annual Reports had been tabled, each entity would be required to make a presentation to the Committee, and that this would afford Members an opportunity to become more fully acquainted with the challenges and issues needing to be addressed. It was possible at this stage to discuss possible oversight trips again. The scope of the Committee’s portfolio must be borne in mind when prioritising oversight visits. A number of key points had been discussed at the orientation workshop. One of the most pressing issues was that of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), and it was suggested that the Committee must have oversight on this, since it required expenditure of R60 billion, and since the Director General of DST had already intimated that there were significant challenges and controversy in its development.

Mrs Shinn queried whether the Committee would still need to appoint Members of the Board for the Space Agency Board.

Ms Renee Osborne-Mullins, Committee Researcher, responded that the vacant posts for the Space Agency Board had been advertised, and that the selection procedure was currently under way. Once the selections had been finalised, the Speaker would then table the list. The Committee would then be able to consider and review these selections.

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) noted that the PBMR issue had been outlined in the orientation workshop as one of significant urgency. She queried whether the Committee would be required to wait until the budget had been drawn before the date for the oversight visit to the PBMR project was finalised. The Committee Members all needed to be sufficiently informed about the project, and she believed that this could best be achieved through an oversight visit. She noted that this Committee should consider making its oversight visit jointly with members of the Portfolio Committee on Energy. She also requested that the researchers should provide Members with a brief synopsis of the key issues impacting on the PBMR project.

Mr Luyanda Frans, Press Liaison Officer for the Ministry for Science and Technology, agreed that it would be important for the Committee to establish time frames, particularly for the PBMR oversight visit, as this would assist the Department of Science and Technology significantly.

The Chairperson responded that the development of a time frame for oversight visits depended on the budget allocation. The drawing of the budget, in turn, would be determined by the five-year Strategic Plan of the Committee. The Committee Section required that this Strategic Plan be submitted before the end of August 2009. Once it was approved, it would be difficult to make significant changes to it, since they would not have been provided for in the budget. The Committee must bear this in mind when assessing what issues must be included in its Strategic Plan.

The Chairperson reminded the Committee that another key issue for consideration was the Russian oversight trip for the satellite launch. Since this was scheduled for September 2009, it must be included in the Strategic Plan if the Committee decided upon an oversight trip to Russia.

Mr Mohamed Kamdar, ANC Researcher, commented that another potential issue for consideration could be the launch of the electric car. The Committee may want to consider its prospective involvement in the marketing of these electric motor vehicles and their use by Government departments. This was not yet included in the current programme, but it may be important for marketing and promotion of South African innovation. As a cost-saving exercise, the Committee could also consider an oversight trip to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Science Centre, which was locally situated locally and would not incur too much expense.

Ms Dunjwa was concerned that no changes would be allowed to the five-year Strategic Plan once it had been ratified. The programme should allow for some flexibility, as the Committee, being part of an activist Parliament, may need to respond, including perhaps having to pay visits to rural and developing areas. If the programme was too rigid, these visits would not be provided for.

The Chairperson responded that the fact that the five-year Strategic Plan and programme would be ratified did not necessarily mean that the programme would be rigid or that it could not provide for such visits as she had mentioned. The Committee would also not be constrained to make oversight visits only within the broader Cape Town area. However, it would be limited to only two overseas oversight tours. A special need for oversight could be investigated by the Committee when it arose. The focal task for the Committee at present, however, would be think forward to issues that were likely to require consideration, so they could be included in the five-year Strategic Plan. In addition, issues that had been raised in the Members’ respective constituencies should be brought before the Committee for discussion and possible inclusion in the five-year plan. Although unanticipated issues could be addressed, they did pose some challenges, as they needed to be brought before the Committee Section authorities, and sometimes it was difficult to get approval and budget allocation for new issues. Although there could be scope for revision of the five-year plan, it would be preferable to have as comprehensive and inclusive a plan as possible.

Mrs S Molao (COPE) commented that it would be helpful if Members could be supplied with a short document, outlining the key projects and issues for consideration by the Committee. It could include some background information and a summary of the main points for consideration under each issue. The Committee needed to remain mindful of how the projects within its scope impacted on the community at grass-roots level. The Committee could play a role in building awareness in communities about these various projects.

The Chairperson responded that in September and October 2009, the various entities would present their Annual Reports to the Committee, and would have the opportunity to explain their endeavours, successes and challenges.

The Chairperson noted that it was also suggested that the Committee could consider oversight trips to Sutherland and to the Medical Research Council (MRC), particularly to investigate the latter’s development of new HIV medication. These would not require an extensive budget. The Committee must set down some possible dates and timeframes for all potential visits.

Ms S Kalyan (DA) requested clarification around the meeting times for the Committee. She thought that the Group A meetings, which included this Committee, were scheduled for Tuesdays between 09:00 and 13:00. The Committee was now holding meetings on a Wednesday, which created attendance problems for some who also members of other committees.

Ms Kalyan asked that the Press Liaison Office for the Ministry include the Portfolio Committee Members on its e-mail list, as the Members must be kept informed of the Minister’s trips and activities.

The Chairperson acknowledged that this was an important issue and agreed that Members must be kept informed.

Mr Frans responded that, as a result of the change in membership, it had been difficult to obtain the e-mail addresses of all Committee Members. He requested that the Committee Secretary provide his office with an updated list of names and addresses so that they could be included.

Ms Shinn noted that she had logged on to the Press Liaison Office’s website, and requested that she be included on the emailing list, but had received no confirmation, nor any information. She requested that Mr Frans check that she would now be able to receive the information she had requested.

Mrs Dunjwa queried the joint participation of this Committee with other committees on matters of shared interest, asking whether there would, for instance, be scope for participation and communication with the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry regarding some projects.

The Chairperson responded that this Portfolio Committee had common issues with various other committees, and, where this was the case, joint sittings with other committees could be arranged. The Chairpersons of both committees would arrange this. It was easy to arrange where the committees fell within the same cluster, but could be done even across different clusters. In the past, this Committee had sat jointly with the Portfolio Committees dealing with environmental, public enterprises, minerals and energy and other matters. Issues would need to be prioritised and a time frame finalised, so that these joint sittings could be arranged.

Ms Shinn suggested that the PBMR issue be prioritised for a joint sitting, and that the oversight visit should also take place in conjunction with the other committees involved, so that the PBMR would only need to make one presentation. Committee Members would also benefit from the exchange and sharing of knowledge with other Members on the issue.

The Chairperson agreed with this suggestion, and commented that the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises would be the best Committee with which to hold a joint sitting, as the PBMR fell within its portfolio. However, it may also be fruitful to engage the Portfolio Committee on Energy. It would be important to prioritise the most pressing issues to be interrogated.

The Chairperson reiterated that because of the change in the membership of the Committee, the draft programme must be revisited, to include input from new Committee Members.

Mrs Molao suggested that perhaps the new Members could be supplied with some of the documents from the orientation workshop to help them to familiarise themselves with matters.

The Chairperson agreed that this would be helpful step, and requested that the Committee Secretary and researchers circulate the relevant documentation from the orientation workshop to all the new Members.

Ms Kalyan noted that the clusters had recently been reorganised, and that, for instance, this Committee and the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry were now within the same cluster. The Department of Trade and Industry would be hosting two Conventions shortly, and some of the issues would be of interest to this Committee. She had been advised to ask the Chairperson to liaise with the Chairperson of the Trade and Industry Committee to arrange for Members’ attendance at these conventions.
The Committee Secretary confirmed that the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry had contacted this Committee with regard to the Conventions, which were scheduled for 1 and 2 September, and had issued Members of this Committee with an invitation.

Mrs Dunjwa requested clarification on the role of the DST in the community at grass-roots level, such as in agriculture and rural development, saying that this was important in the development and empowerment of communities, especially through locally developed innovative technologies.

The Chairperson noted that Science and Technology was an applied science, and that it had impact across many departments. Analysis had shown that technology guided social development. In developed countries, technology was prioritised and advanced social development. It was envisaged that the South African economy would ideally shift away from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. In this process, innovative projects would positively affect social development at a grass-roots level. It was the duty of the Committee to drive social development and, with the assistance of the Department, positive changes could be implemented.

Ms Shinn agreed with the Chairperson. She noted that in the North West Province, the Department of Transport had collaborated with the CSIR in developing the “lego bicycle”. This innovative mode of non-fuel transport was bought in component form and built according to the needs of the consumer. For example, the vehicle could be constructed as a bicycle, or a donkey-drawn goods transport vehicle.

Ms Shinn also commented that the Committee should play a role in the oversight of the draft legislation for the protection of Indigenous Knowledge. It could be important to visit the Indigenous Knowledge Centre in KwaZulu Natal, to educate Members around the key developments in this area. She also suggested another key area for oversight as the National Marine Strategy. The issue of climate change would be a significant tie-in with the satellite launch in September 2009.

The Chairperson agreed that a visit to the Indigenous Knowledge Centre could be combined with a visit to the Biotechnology Centre and Medical Research Centre, all of which were in Pietermaritzburg. He noted that the use of indigenous plants in the pharmacological treatment of diseases like HIV/ AIDS and cancer was also important.

Ms Shinn suggested that members could use the workshop notes to update themselves on key issues, and could perhaps suggest and motivate key oversight trips at the next meeting.

Ms Kalyan queried whether a delegation from the Committee would be able to attend the Satellite Launch in Russia in September 2009.

The Chairperson responded that this issue had already been covered earlier, and that a delegation from the Committee could be selected according to the Committee Section formula. Some Committee Members may make the trip to Russia and some may watch the launch from South Africa, but this was one of the issues to be considered.

Mrs Molao commented that South Africa had made some significant advances in technological developments, and that it might be fruitful to revisit Denel in Pretoria, to oversee innovations in the development of the jet fighters being produced there.

The Chairperson acknowledged that oversight trips to both Armscor and Denel would be important. Currently, 80% of Denel was Swedish-owned. Sweden had integrated satellite technology and mapping capabilities, so that significant improvements had been made in satellite-tracking capacity. South Africa had a lot to learn from Sweden and its focus on developing science and technology. Sweden employed an excellent organisation of its science system, despite having a relatively small ministry of only fifteen members). The transformation of South Africa’s Science and Technology Ministry, as suggested in 2003, was similar to the practice employed by Sweden and had seemed to work well in application.

The Chairperson also suggested that oversight trips to India and Brazil, and possibly some of the Asian economies, might prove fruitful. The Chief Executive Officer of Samsung in South Korea had offered an excellent paper on innovation, and there could be much to learn from countries who prioritised innovation, perhaps more than from further visits to the United States of America or the United Kingdom.

Ms M Nyama (ANC) asked for clarity around the parliamentary event in North Korea.  She said that the Committee should begin to think about, and finalise, those who should attend so that the delegates could begin to prepare.

The Chairperson responded that once the five-year strategic plan had been finalised, all the finer details of oversight trips could be attended to. The priority now was to develop that five-year plan, so that the Committee could draw a budget for the oversight trips.

Ms Nyama asked if attendance by the Committee in North Korea would constitute one of the Committee’s overseas oversight tours.

The Chairperson responded that the invitation to this event was not part of the Committee’s allocation of two overseas oversight tours. Guidelines from the House Chairperson would be circulated to all Members so that they were aware of the formula set out in the Parliamentary guidelines.

The Chairperson noted that during the next meeting, Members would have to finalise the five-year Strategic Programme of the Committee, and finalise how many, and which, Committee Members would form the delegation to North Korea.

The meeting was adjourned.


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