Department of Science and Technology 2008/09 Annual Report

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

03 November 2009
Chairperson: Ms M Makgate (ANC, NW)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) briefed the Committee on its Annual Report 2008/09. Much of the briefing entailed a comprehensive overview of the five programmes of the Department whilst touching on some of their specific achievements. Members were also given a breakdown of the Department’s financial statement. For the 2008/09 financial year, the Department had been allocated R3.7bn. The Department had managed to spend 99.5% of its allocation. Percentage spending per programme was 30% for Socio-Economic Partnerships, 40% for Human Capital and Knowledge Systems, 23% on Research, Development and Innovation, 4% on International Co-operation and Resources and finally 3% on Corporate Services and Governance. The Committee congratulated the Department in obtaining an unqualified audit report from the Auditor General.

In the discussion that followed, Members were concerned that the study of science and technology was not encouraged enough at schools. Specific reference was made to Dinaledi schools in that they did not meet up to expectations. Another concern was that science graduates from universities were struggling to find jobs when there was an apparent shortage of skills in the sector. The Auditor General’s statement that the Department had inconsistently reported on its performance indicators on its corporate plan was raised. If the SKA telescope went ahead, a Northern Cape member of parliament seemed to think that 300 people in the Prieska community would lose their jobs and asked for the Department’s response to this

Meeting report

The Chairperson expressed dissatisfaction with the absence of the leadership of the Department of Science and Technology from the meeting. The Deputy Minister and the Director General should have been present.  The Departmental delegation comprised of Ms Marjorie Pyoos, Deputy Director General, Mr David Mmakola, Acting Chief Operating Officer, and Ms Malekgoloane Malapane, Chief Financial Officer. Ms Makgate said that the meeting had been rescheduled to accommodate the Deputy Minister and the Director General. She asked for an explanation.

Ms Pyoos apologised for the absence of the Deputy Minister and the Director General but said that they were attending a Cabinet meeting.

Mr W Faber (DA, NC) asked how the briefing could continue without the Director General. The Director General was the accountable person. It was no use questioning officials. The briefing should not be allowed to continue. The situation was unacceptable.

Ms R Rasmeni (ANC, NW) agreed that it was unacceptable. The Committee had gone out of its way to accommodate the Department’s leadership. She agreed that the briefing should not be allowed to continue.

Mr De Villiers said it was simply not good manners that the Chairperson was not informed of the situation before the meeting. He also felt that the briefing should not be allowed to continue. He suggested that the Chairperson should write a letter to the Minister over the issue. The Speaker and the Chairperson of the NCOP should also be informed. Even the President should be informed. The Committee was being taken for granted.

Ms Makgate stated that it was unfortunate that political heads forget that the Committee did oversight over them. No official apology had even been forwarded to the Committee. She concurred with members that the NCOP was not taken seriously. Only National Assembly meetings were attended.

The Chairperson agreed that a letter would be written to the Minister, Deputy Minister and the Chairperson of the NCOP about the issue. It was the Committee’s first interaction with the Department and it was already starting on a bad foot.
Ms Pyoos once again apologised and asked to be allowed to continue with the briefing.

The Committee relented and the briefing went ahead.

Briefing by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on its Annual Report 2008/09
Ms Pyoos undertook the briefing assisted by Ms Malapane. One of the Department’s key objectives, she noted, was to develop the innovation capacity of the science system and to contribute to socio-economic development. The Committee was given a comprehensive overview of the programmes of the Department whilst touching on some of its achievements. A breakdown of selected indicators with actual performance was also provided. For example the total amount of funds leveraged from international sources had increased from R70m in 2006/07 to R189m in 2008/09.The number of bilateral projects had increased from 60 in 2006/07 to 86 in 2008/09. The Department had five programmes. Corporate Services and Governance was responsible for the overall management of the department. The Department had an unqualified audit opinion from the Auditor General.

Research, Development and Innovation provided policy leadership in long term and cross cutting research and innovation. The launch of the South African-designed electric prototype vehicle for demonstration in 2008 was an achievement.

International Co-operation and Resources had the task of developing and monitoring bilateral and multilateral relationships and agreements in science and technology. A total of 115 new bilateral projects were established in 2008/09.

Human Capital and Knowledge Systems was responsible for the development and implementation of national programmes to produce knowledge, human capital and associated infrastructure, equipment and public research services to sustain the National System of Innovation (NSI). Two hundred and seventy one honours students in science, engineering and technology were supported.

Socio-Economic Partnerships was a programme to provide policy, strategy and direction setting support for research and development led growth of value adding industries. A joint DST/ Department of Water Affairs project on innovative alternative technologies for water supply and access had been established.

Ms Malapane provided the Committee with a breakdown of the Department’s financials. For the 2008/09 financial year, the Department had been allocated R3.7bn. The Department had managed to spend 99.5% of its allocation. Percentage spending per programme was 30% for Socio-Economic Partnerships, 40% for Human Capital and Knowledge Systems, 23% on Research, Development and Innovation, 4% on International Co-operation and Resources and finally 3% on Corporate Services and Governance. It was felt that the Department had performed well above what had been expected.

Ms Pyoos continued with a demographic breakdown of the Department staff which was 78% African, 10% White, 6% Coloured and 6% Indian. She stated that the Department had achieved and met most of its performance targets.

Ms Makgate expressed her appreciation for the energetic manner in which Ms Pyoos had done her presentation. From the presentation it would seem that everything was smooth sailing for the Department. There were no challenges highlighted. The Chairperson did pick up that it was a challenge for the Department to extend broadband internet connectivity to rural communities.

Mr W Faber (DA, North Cape) felt it a fruitless exercise to interact with the Department since there was no leadership present to take responsibility. He pointed out that the SKA and Meerkat astronomical projects referred to in the presentation were to be located near Prieska in the Northern Cape. The projects required an area with no radio activity. There was currently north of Prieska a test ground facility for weapons testing being utilised by various countries. Sri Lanka and China for example tested rockets and other projectiles in the area. Three hundred locals from the area were employed at the facility. These were indigent individuals who had no other sources of income. If the astronomy projects were to go ahead, radio silence would have to be maintained which meant the closure of the facility. What was to happen with the 300 persons who were to lose their jobs? If one took into consideration the families of the employed persons more than a 1000 individuals would be affected. It was a concern that had to be brought to the attention of the Minister.

Ms Pyoos noted that the Department was sensitive to how communities would be affected by projects. She said that public hearings had been held. Programmes were in place to ensure that there were collateral benefits to communities. A full presentation on the issue would be given to the Committee in due course. A response document would also be forwarded to the Committee. The Deputy Minister would also be alerted.

Mr M De Villiers (ANC, Western Cape) referred to page 27 of the Annual Report and asked about the variance in expenditure of the Department amounting to R18, 72m. During the presentation the impression had been given that the Department had spent all its funds. Was the Annual Report figure incorrect? He also referred to page 28 which spoke to transfer of payments to different entities. Was it correct that the National Research Foundation had under-spent R387m?

Mr De Villiers said that human resource constraints were mentioned with regards to the SKA project. No mention was made of human resource constraints within the Department.

Ms Malapane replied that the Department’s total expenditure sat at 99, 5%. The R18, 72m that was unspent was the 0.5%.

Ms Pyoos noted that the human resource constraints referred to were internal human resource constraints within the Department.

Ms R Rasmeni (ANC, North West) said that the presentation did not provide much detail about the Department’s efforts to develop and empower communities. She asked how the Department spent the funding received from Finland. Concern was raised over the fact that university graduates often did not find jobs on completion of their studies. Was there not a shortage of science skills? She asked what the joint science activities were that were being referred to in the presentation. It was asked what the Department’s relationship with the Department of Health was with regards to HIV, AIDS and TB was. What role did the Department play over the issue of genetically modified foods?

Ms Pyoos replied that there were many projects that the Department was engaged in that were just not captured in the presentation. She said that 3 000 households benefited from community based work. It even extended into aquaculture where a community was producing 250 tons of trout for Woolworths. In the Eastern Cape water sanitation was a problem and cholera was rife. Pit latrines at schools were non functional.  The Department had assisted community businesses in securing work to service pit latrine toilets at schools.

She said that the funding from Finland came along with its own set of priorities. Finland’s aim was to promote knowledge and research. The money could be used for workshops and research papers for example. It could not be used for the purchasing of hardware and equipment. The financial assistance was more for the facilitative side of things. They even chose the provinces in which they felt the money should be spent.

It was correct that there were skills shortages in science. For example universities would receive grants from the Department if it offered science programmes. It was a fact that graduates, say from UCT, would stand a better chance of getting a job than a Fort Hare graduate.

Examples of joint science initiatives were a bilateral with the Department of Water Affairs over access to water in rural areas or where the Department together with the Department of Energy funded SANEDI (South African National Energy Development Institute). There was also a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Housing on better design and power alternatives. A list of joint initiatives would be forwarded to the Committee. The Department also had an agreement with the Department of Health on how they would complement each other over health issues like HIV, AIDS and TB.

Ms M Moshodi (ANC, Free State) asked what the Department was doing about skills development. What work was being done with SITA (State Information and Technology Agency)?

Ms Pyoos said that for research and development, the Department did provide bursaries to universities. On SITA work, the Department had a plan to migrate government to open source software.

Mr S Plaaitjie (COPE, North West) asked what strategies the Department had in place to strengthen science and technology in schools. He asked what role the Department was playing with regards to Set Top Box (STB) decoders. The decoders converted analogue signals to digital. Were the decoders to be manufactured by South African companies?

Ms Pyoos said that the Department’s Human Capital programme covered the issue of schools. The Department had adopted Dinaledi schools. The Department assisted teachers in familiarising themselves with the curriculum and the lab equipment. The Department had taken a decision to get involved in an extra-curriculum manner so as not to impact upon the normal schooling activities. There was thus no infringement on the Department of Education. A report would be forwarded to the Committee.

Ms Pyoos said that the Department had identified ten possible companies that would be able to manufacture the decoder unit. However of the ten only four had the infrastructure to manufacture the complete unit. The six other companies would be able to receive subcontracts from the bigger four.

The Chairperson suggested that where the Department referred to figures that had been achieved in the Annual Report, it should compare it to targeted figures. A comparison would be helpful. She noted that 85% of the Department’s allocation was transferred to public entities. How did the Department monitor these entities?

Mr Mmakola agreed that a comparison of actual figures with targeted figures would be provided in the future. As it stood in the Annual Report, it was the current format used by the Department. He noted that the entities to which funds were transferred provided quarterly reports.

Ms Rasmeni said that the Committee did appreciate the unqualified audit report received by the Department.

Mr Plaaitjie understood the Department’s attempt at assisting Dinaledi schools. The fact was that these schools had buildings in poor shape and science was not a priority. Some non-Dinaledi schools were performing better. Some schools only had the Dinaledi name attached to them. They were only Dinaledi schools in name. A proper intervention strategy was needed.

He said that many university graduates often did not obtain jobs because funds were not spent at the lowest levels. A proper base was needed for students.

Was there a way in which the Department could fuse indigenous medicines knowledge with conventional medicines with reference to the South African HIV/AIDS Research and Innovation Platform (SHARP)?

Ms Pyoos, referring to Dinaledi, said that the Department had a small budget compared to the Department of Education. The Department adopted Dinaledi schools to the extent that the budget allowed. Dinaledi schools did not form part of the Department’s mandate. Dinaledi was not a Department project. It sat with the Department of Education. She understood the Committee’s concerns but the Department’s involvement was limited.

Ms Pyoos said that SHARP did include indigenous knowledge systems.

Ms Makgate expressed concern about the many unemployed graduates. Why were those from the more prominent universities like UCT preferred over those from universities like Fort Hare?

Ms Pyoos replied that the Department had started a database where unemployed graduates could place their details. Universities and science councils were encouraged to take on interns.

The Chairperson asked what impact did the National Science Week have. Did it reach out to rural and remote areas? Did only those within reach benefit?

Ms Pyoos took heed of the Chairperson’s comments about the National Science Week.

Ms B Mncube (ANC, Gauteng) recommended that not only should a report on the Department’s partnerships be sent to the Committee but also a presentation was required. A working relationship between the Committee and the Department needed to be encouraged.

Mr De Villiers referred to page 39 and 40 of the Annual Report and asked why the green transport plan was terminated. Who was involved in the plan and was money spent. The hydrogen and fuel cell technology (HFCT) project which involved BMW had been cancelled. Who was involved and was money spent? He asked whether the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) would be located within government structures. He requested more information.

Mr De Villiers referred to page 204 of the Annual Report where it stated that 39.4% of jobs within the Department were evaluated. On page 205 noted that 54.1% of contracts had expired. Transfer of employees from the Department to other departments sat at 19.05%. On page 213 sick leave levels were considered to be high for the more skilled jobs. He referred to the leasing of vehicles and equipment by the Department and said that huge amounts were paid but the assets reverted back to the lessor when leases expired.

Ms Pyoos said that the Department had believed that hydrogen and fuel cell technology could be encouraged and showcased during the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Discussions had taken place with BMW to bring in fuel cell and hydrogen cell vehicles for demonstration purposes at the World Cup. The costs in setting up fuel and hydrogen cell refuelling stations were too great for it to be viable. Hence the project was cancelled. The Department had not incurred any costs on the project.

The NACI was an advisory council which was an advisory body to the Minister.

She explained that on page 205, the 54.1 % of expired contracts did not refer to the expired contracts of the Department as a whole. Sixty three persons had left the Department and 54.1% of their contracts had expired. Similarly the 19.05% of transfers referred to was 19.05% of the 63 persons that had left and not the entire Department. She noted that the high sick leave levels of skilled persons referred to only 97 persons of the entire Department staff complement. A total of 526 sick leave days had been taken.

Job evaluations were at 40% in 2008/09. Job evaluations for new posts could not be completed in time. For 2009/10 only a few new posts were created and hence they had to still be evaluated.

Ms Malapane explained that fortunately the Department did not have that many vehicles on lease. Most of the vehicles were owned by the Department. There were three-year leases of copy machines and faxes etc. These leases would expire soon and would be renewed.

Ms Rasmeni asked what the success rate of incentive schemes was. She referred to climate change and asked what attempts were being made by the Department to investigate climate change. Reference was also made to the titanium value chain and at what stage of the chain was SA currently sitting. What were the timeframes for completion?

Ms Pyoos said that there were incentive programmes. They were predominantly tax incentives which companies had to file for. In 2008 the uptake was not that good but in 2009 the uptake was much better.

Climate change was a priority. It affected both provinces and local governments. The Department had a plan of action on climate change and knowledge and information on it was available.

SA produced titanium powder. The Department was at the stage of requesting additional funding as it wished to increase the volume of production. The greater the capacity of titanium powder production, the greater the chances to secure buyers from overseas.

Ms Moshodi referred to the Department’s vacancy rate of 12% and asked what measures were being put in place to address the issue.

Ms Pyoos replied that the Department had a vacancy rate of 12 % because it took time to fill posts.

Ms Makgate referred to the Joule electric vehicle launched by SA in September 2008. She asked when it would be available for civilian use. What was the lifespan of the battery used to power the vehicle? Was the Joule intended to be used by government departments such as the SA Post Office for example? 

The Chairperson was concerned about officials abusing sick leave.

Ms Pyoos could not comment much on the Joule as it was a private venture. Government’s involvement was to do with the battery technology that was used to power it. As far as she knew, the company behind the Joule vehicle was trying to secure finance to set up a manufacturing plant.

Mr Faber said that the Joule was indeed a private concept. He asked if government contributed any funds to the project and if it did, how much?

Ms Pyoos reiterated that the Department’s or SA’s involvement was only in regards to the battery technology. An Intellectual Property Rights Act was in place that the Department would be entitled to a slice of the profits. The portion of profits would only relate to the battery and not the vehicle itself. Cost information would be forwarded to the Committee.

Mr De Villiers asked why posts were not created for persons who wished to leave the Department.

The Chairperson asked if the Department had a staff retention strategy.

Ms Pyoos noted that the Department had a strategy to try to hold onto persons who wished to leave. It was a recognition and reward strategy. Labour law however prevented the Department from stopping persons who wished to leave the Department. It was a battle but the Department had come to terms with it.

Ms Moshodi asked what measures were being taken to address the Auditor General’s statement that the Department had inconsistently reported on its performance indicators on its corporate plan. 

Mr Mmakola replied that the Department was addressing the issue.

The Chairperson reminded the Department that the Committee needed further information about the Dinaledi schools, employment of science graduates, the Prieska community issue and on the Auditor General’s concerns.

The Committee commended the Department for securing an unqualified audit report. It however expressed dissatisfaction over the failure of the Deputy Minister and the Director General in attending the meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.


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