National Research Foundation briefing on their Corporate Strategy, with Reference to Funding Criteria in Relation to Targets Set for Masters/PhD Production

Science and Technology

11 May 2010
Chairperson: Mr N Ncgobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The National Research Foundation (NRF) briefed the Committee on its corporate strategy, with particular emphasis on funding criteria in relation to targets set for Masters/PhD production.

The Committee’s questions addressed the issues of investment principles. whether the NRF was investing in renewable energy, why 15% of the funding was given to students in the rest of Africa when the NRF already fell short of funding domestically, and if the NRF had received a guarantee from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) that the R52.7 million that was given to them was not a once-off cash injection. They also looked at the problem with funding the operations levy, the skills retention strategy for Square
Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope programme, research done on water quality, and the ageing equipment being used by the sector.

Members also focused on whether people had been appointed as research chairs, how the R52.7 million that was received from the DST linked with the NRFs wish list in terms of what they wanted bursaries to be valued at, why the NRF had budgeted so little money for the Antarctic Research project, and the possibility that the NRF would take on the Medical Research Council and the Agricultural Research Council. The Committee noted that the majority of the public were clueless about science and technology, especially in rural areas. They asked how often NRF visited schools and had oral interactions with schools and whether they were making a concerted effort to ensure that more black women became scientists. Members noted that universities in Japan and Sweden were offering students from other countries such as South Africa the opportunity to complete their Master and PhDs at their universities. The NRF thought this was a good idea and should be seen as a fifty year plan.

Meeting report

Briefing by National Research Foundation (NRF)
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Chief Executive Officer and President, NRF, stated that the NRFs strategic goals were to have internationally competitive science and technology systems, to represent the research and technical workforce in South Africa, to have world class benchmarking and grant systems, to have leading edge research and technology platforms, and to have a vibrant national science system.

He explained NRF investment principles. Funding was awarded after competitive processes and investments were subject to competitive peer reviews. The NRF allocated its resources to attain its strategic goals and for efficient service delivery. The PhD was regarded as a critical systems driver. The principles of fairness, transparency and accountability were applied to all investment processes.

The NRFs investment was mainly focused on knowledge production in institutional environments, human capital development and astronomy. Other areas of investment focused on looking at expanding the limits of space science and technology, the search for energy security, human and social dynamics, the response to global change, biodiversity, Antarctic research and indigenous knowledge.

Specific areas of investment for 2010/11 included funding for established researchers, human capital development, strategic knowledge fields, applied and industrial research and innovation, strategic platforms, international initiatives, community engagement research and focus area programmes.

The NRFs bursary values have been constant since the Financial Year 2007/08. Bursary values have been too low and would require a cash injection of approximately R 300 million in the core grant to adjust values and grow student numbers. The NRF wanted to increase the number of scholarships it awarded, as they were currently too low. 80% of the NRFs funds were allocated to black people, 15% were allocated to rest of Africa and 5% was allocated to international students. The grants were allocated on a needs based approach. In 2009, the NRF funded 6047 students. Most of these students were in the process of completing their Honours, Masters or Doctoral certificates. The grants were allocated on scientific quality such as marks received and papers published, the capacity of the Higher Education Institution (HEI) to support the chosen field of research, demographics, timing and the discipline.

In 2010, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) provided the NRF with a cash injection of R52.7 million so that the NRF could increase its bursary values. This would address the lack of uptake of bursaries offered by the NRF and it would assist needy students. The Honours degree allocations increased from R15 000 to R20 000, the Masters degree allocation increased from R30 000 to R40 000 and the Doctoral degree allocation increased from R45 000 to R60 000.

Some of the challenges that were experienced centered on achieving an optimal balance between core and contract funding, ensuring an appropriate mix of fundamental and directed research, strengthening the peer review and rating systems, optimizing the scarce skills development fund, improving the management and administration of bi-national and bi-lateral agreements, and strengthening the Strategic Platforms Collaboration Programme.

Some funding was contributed to the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). The entity was involved in science education, science communication, and science awareness platforms. One of the challenges that SAASTA experienced was whether the future of the Johannesburg Observatory Site should be a flagship national site from where science advancement should be both driven and coordinated. SAASTA received a budget of R50 million for 2010/11.

Financial contributions were also made to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). SAAO was entrusted with the responsibility for optical, infrared astronomy and astrophysics research. SAAO operated the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) on behalf of a globally distributed consortium. SAAO received a budget of R50 million for 2010/11. The challenge was whether there were enough funds to repair and refurbish ageing infrastructure.

The NRF was also financially responsible for MeerKAT and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA was the largest pathfinder telescope in the world. The project received a budget of R469 million. However,
the SKA SA project was still severely under-resourced from a Human Resource (HR) perspective, given the task of delivering the MeerKAT 80 dish array. These positions will be filled by the beginning of the 2011 financial year. The challenge was the shortage of engineering skills within the country and the issue of staff retention given the skill sets of current staff members. Also, there was no real operations budget for MeerKAT in place.

The NRF also funded projects such as the
Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO), the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory (HMO), the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG), and the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences (iThemba LABS)

Overall challenges included the ability to maintain and re-establish global competitiveness. An additional R200 million was required per annum over three years. An increased DST contribution was pivotal and a diversification of NRF funding streams was needed. Corrective measures would be implemented from 2010/11 to allow the NRF to breakeven by 2012/13, even thought the NRF was dealing with R120 million in budget cuts over the next three years.

Mr P Smith (IFP) addressed the issue of investment principles. He asked what the origin of the strategy was. Was it driven by the private sector, the state or State Owned Enterprises (SOEs)? It was difficult to get figures on renewable energy. The NRF spoke about the search for energy security. He asked if the NRF was investing in renewable energy. In terms of student funding options, 15% of the funding was given to students in the rest of Africa. He wondered how the NRF made a strategic determination of the quantity or percentage of money given to the rest of Africa when the NRF already fell short of funding domestically. The injection of the R52.7 million from the Department was great; however, the Member wondered if the NRF had received a guarantee from the Department that this was not a once-off cash injection and that it would be contained in the MTEF. He was concerned about some of the challenges experienced by the NRF. He knew there was a problem with funding the operations levy. If this was a problem for SALT, then he was worried about MeerKAT and SKA. Was there a clear skills retention strategy for SKA? The Environmental Observation Network was involved in some wonderful projects. The water quality in the country was decreasing at an alarming rate. He wondered if the research done on water quality was just research if it was applied research. The country needed help with its water quality. He found it remarkable that there was so much ageing equipment being used, yet it required so little to bring it up to speed. There was tardiness on the fiscus side to deal with this issue.

Dr van Jaarsveld replied that the strategies that were funded were determined by industry investment, government department investments and government priorities. The injection of R52.7 million was still being discussed with the National Treasury. The NRF was working on a strategy for infrastructure for the science sector as a whole. There was a common understanding of how the money would be used. In terms of the 15% that was put towards foreign students, one had to look at the broader context of the funding. NRF and the country as a whole had many international agreements with other African countries regarding science collaborations. Many of the NRFs investments were aligned with its efforts to follow through with the political agreements that were made as far as science was concerned.

Dr van Jaarsveld informed the Committee that the NRF was in the process of resolving the issue of the National Facilities Operations Levy with the DST. SALT did not take a lot of money; however, it had to be maintained. It was important that MeerKAT had an operational budget. He stated that putting money into skills generation was a huge investment. The NRF was investing in a lot of money into students that wanted to acquire their PhDs.

He stated that SAEON was collaborating with the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) on efforts to improve the water quality.

Dr van Jaarsveld addressed the question on renewable energy. He stated that there were two major initiatives that the NRF invested in. A Centre for Excellence was established at Stellenbosch University for studying renewable energy. It was funded through the Department of Energy. There was another venture around the MeerKAT project that was very important. Some of the programmes within the project would consume a considerable amount of energy. The MeerKAT project, along with German investors and Eskom, wanted to establish a concentrated solar power facility in the Northern Cape to feed the MeerKAT renewable energy.

Dr Molapo Qhobela, Deputy Director-General: Human Capital and Knowledge Systems (DST), added that when one recognised a problem, something had to be done about it. It was not just a case of lamenting over the issue. The DSTs investment into the NRF was made in the current academic year and would hopefully yield the sort of benefits that were more sustainable going forward. The DST was, as part of its own MTEF discussions with the National Treasury (NT) were looking at things within the DST that would ensure that there was sustainability in terms of growth.

Ms M Shinn (DA) asked if people were appointed as research chairs yet. She asked how the R52.7 million that was received from the DST linked with the NRFs wish list in terms of what they wanted bursaries to be valued at. She was surprised at how little they had set aside for Antarctic Research. If the country wanted to be a significant global player in this area, more funds would be needed. Was there any possibility that the NRF would take on the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC)? These entities were in desperate need of help. Last year, the NRF received a lot of “flack” for funding some research programmes. A lot of people involved actually lost their funding. She wanted to know if the NRF reviewed or renewed its funding strategy so that these people could continue with their research programmes. Last year there were approximately 1900 researchers that were rated by the NRF. Was this improving at all and was the NRF reviewing its rating system? She addressed the NRFs recapitalisation of national facilities. She noted that that the NRF wanted to invest R600 million into national infrastructure over the next three years. Would this be enough to refurbish the entire infrastructure so that it was up to par and internationally competitive? She noted that the forced efficiency savings project seemed to be very ambitious. She wondered how the NRF would actually do this and what they were saving on.

Dr van Jaarsveld replied that there were five research chairs awarded to institutions. They were given to the University of the Western Cape, the University of Cape Town, the University of Stellenbosch, Rhodes University and the University of the Witwatersrand. Two have been approved, while three of the institutions were still looking for suitable candidates.

He replied that the extra R52.7 million helped to increase bursary allocations; however, the allocations were still far from ideal. The NRF was a long way from achieving its targets for allocations.

He agreed that the NRF had to step up its funding for Antarctic research if they wanted to be a player in the southern oceans. The DST took over the funding of the research over the past few years. However, the DST was aware that the NRF wanted the funding to be increased. The NRF needed a platform from which they could start their research. This was why they had to wait for a vessel to be built that would enable them to do proper research in the southern oceans. Without the vessel, they could not justify further investment into the research.

Dr van Jaarsveld stated that the MRC and ARC issue was a sensitive matter. When the NRF was formed, the MRC was invited to join them; however, they declined. The ARC did not fund research in the same way that the NRF funded; it seemed that they only conducted research. The NRF was in talks with the ARC to help them manage their investments. Then again, helping the MRC and ARC was also a question of budget. This would probably be discussed more effectively at Ministerial level.

Concerning research programmes, there was an area called focus area programmes that the NRF was trying to phase out. The funding framework spoke to a very old government strategy. There was a need to fund existing priorities at the end of the day. The NRF then decided to phase out the older programmes. Many academic communities were not happy about this; however, the NRF replaced these with additional programmes that they were funding.

Dr van Jaarsveld answered that the number of rated researchers had increased. It was encouraging that most of the growth was happening in the social sciences and humanities areas. The NRF was going many things to streamline the rating process and to make it more user friendly. The NRF also reorganised some of the rating categories. The NRF wanted to encourage researchers to get rated as it meant that they would become nationally and internationally competitive.

He stated that the extra funding would help to get the infrastructure on par. It would also help to clear up the backlog the NRF was experiencing so that they could move forward.

Dr van Jaarsveld addressed the forced efficiency savings question. He replied that it was going to be difficult to achieve and that the NRF did not want to cut the grant budget as it would impact on the research community, which would have long term consequences. This meant that they would have to deal with it internally, such as not filling vacancies in the organisation. The NRF would also be cutting down on travelling expenses. These were difficult business decisions that had to be made. The NRF hoped that the cut backs would be temporary and that they would receive some relief in the future. For now, they would plan for the worst case scenario.   

Ms M Nyama (ANC) noted that the majority of the public were clueless about science and technology, especially in rural areas. She asked how often the NRF visited schools and had oral interactions with schools. Was there a concerted effort by the NRF to ensure that more women, specifically black women, became scientists?

Dr van Jaarsveld replied that the country needed a driver to advance the publics understanding of science and technology. The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) was ideally suited to play this role. It was not part of SAASTAs mandate. Therefore, a discussion had to be held as to whether there was room to broaden its mandate. SAASTA has been engaging the community through science initiatives. Last year, SAASTA interacted with approximately 250 000 learners as well as the media to promote the public’s understanding of science. SAASTA was a body that had the potential to have a much larger impact in the country.

He answered that there were more black women that were becoming scientists. This was a big driver for the NRF. Unfortunately, it was difficult to retain talented black females in the system. The NRF would keep working on the matter and trying to increase the amount of female researchers in the system. 

The Chairperson noted that the Committee had visited Rhodes University once, and they were impressed with the amount of black researchers they had. He suggested that the Committee visit the university again to see how much more they have progressed.

Dr van Jaarsveld suggested that the Committee also visit some of the Centres for Excellence.

Mr M Nonkonyana (ANC) acknowledged the NRFs contributions towards indigenous knowledge systems. He wanted more information on the issue. He knew it was an area that had not received the attention it deserved. He wondered if the NRFs scholarships had any impact on rural areas in the country and if students in rural areas even benefited from the scholarships at all.

Dr van Jaarsveld replied that the DST and NRF efforts regarding indigenous knowledge systems did not impact on the right communities. It became a bio-chemical programme that was driven by drug discovery initiatives. The DST and NRF felt uncomfortable about how the project was evolving. At this point the project was terminated. The NRF then thought about what it wanted to achieve with the programme and came up with a more balanced programme that allowed the NRF to integrate the research community with the holders of indigenous knowledge. The investment into this project would be rolled out over two years and would try to ensure that any benefit from information sharing would be transferred to communities in the best possible manner.

There was a programme that was launched by the Department recently that looked at community engagement and research that had to be done by rural-based universities around the country. The programme asked universities to get involved with their communities. He did not think the research programme was being
optimised. It required some development and growth in order to make the impact that was expected from it.

Dr van Jaarsveld was encourages by the statistics produced by the NRF that showed the ability of students from rural areas to pursue a research career. There were wonderful examples of learners that learned mathematics under trees in rural areas that were now appointed as professors. The NRF and DST were starting to ensure that they received people form all walks of life in the research and science fields. There was a lot of untapped talent in rural areas. This was a challenge that the NRF and the DST had to face.

The Chairperson stated that there were many concerns, especially from young innovators whose university programmes had been phased out by the NRF. They felt that their ideas had been voiced through those programmes. However, now they were concerned that their ideas would become part of new university programmes. He asked for clarity on the matter. He knew the DTI said that it tried to protect those that had innovative ideas so that they were not stolen by big companies. A number of DTI programmes have not taken off. This was a concern. He noted that universities in Sweden and Japan complained that students no longer wanted to go into the field of research or study their masters or PhDs. Japan has said that they would fund international students if they wanted to pursue studies in Japan. Even Sweden offered to let international students study for free if their living expenses could be covered. There was also a problem where black students did not want to study agricultural research because they thought they would be situated in rural areas. When the Committee was lectured by scientists a while ago, it became clear to Members that SKA was superior to the SALT programme in terms of the information that was brought out regarding radio-astronomy. He wondered why the NRF did not use SKA more.

Dr van Jaarsveld replied that serious thought was being given to the kinds of investments that should be made in certain programmes. The NRF and the DST should have discussions with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

The NRF saw it as a fundamental part of its strategy to push up PhD productions. However, the NRF did not have the supervisor capacity in order to do so. The NRF would have to use spare capacity that existed abroad. The NRF was trying to match up international funders with students that were looking for international opportunities. The NRF was trying to assimilate all the international opportunities that would be made available to students through a central porthole that was launched recently. Students could access this to see international science funding opportunities. The NRF was trying to ensure that students had direct access to that information. This was a fifty year strategy.

In terms of the lack of students in agricultural sciences, the NRF was concerned about it. There were intense discussions taking place at the moment concerning this matter.

Dr van Jaarsveld replied that for an optimal astronomy system to be in place, one would like to observe the night skies using the full spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation that was available. This included very short gamma-rays to intermediate optical rays and long radio waves. For the best picture, full capacity was needed. One of the NRFs advantages was that it had a very good optical ability, long wave, MeerKAT and radio-astronomy capability.

Closing Statements

Ms Mary Metcalf, Director-General, Department of Higher Education and Training, noted that there was a relatively low proportion of PhDs. The Departments found themselves in situations where they could set targets; however, the only mechanisms that they had were the steering mechanisms for policy. The Departments wanted the targets to be higher. When one looked at the steering mechanisms that could be used to encourage universities align with the set targets, one would see that the first steering mechanism looked at funding for research. There were many pieces of research that looked at the relationship between research outputs and people that have PhDs. It was clear that people could not produce new knowledge unless they had a PhD. The Departments encourages universities to use their institutional mechanisms to strive for the targets that were set for PhDs. Universities had to be supportive in the way that they allocated resources so they could encourage staff members and students to complete their PhDs. As much as the Departments can create incentives and as much as they could fun students through the NRF, the important factor was how the partnership between NRF and the DST could support universities.

The Chairperson noted that it was important to have human capital in the science and technology sector. There could not be any economic growth without this. In the last thirty years the world has moved from human and finance capacity to technology capacity to determine economic growth. All countries that were rated as industrialised were focused on technology parameters. Therefore, it was very important that the country developed its human capital.

The meeting was adjourned.



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