Minister of Science and Technology on SA Astronomical Observatory matters, disciplinary issues, role of National Research Foundation

Science and Technology

10 August 2010
Chairperson: Mr N Ncgobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Minister of Science and Technology had been asked to brief the Committee about the role of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in relation to the National Research Foundation (NRF), and more specifically about the astronomy sciences in South Africa and the recent disciplinary issues involving the Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory, Professor Charles.

The Minister noted that she had received considerable correspondence on the disciplinary issue, and had responded to all. She had also been requested by a Member of this Committee to publish a report on the disciplinary hearing of Professor Charles. However, she did not feel that it was legally within her ambit to do so, as she was not responsible for the employment of anyone in the national research facilities, which fell under the jurisdiction of the National Research Foundation, and pointed out that Parliament had the ability to call for an inquiry if it wished. However, given Professor Charles’ stature, and the high investment of the DST in astronomy, she described the steps taken. By way of background, the Minister described the work of the SAAO, stressed that it was host to international facilities, and in particular that the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) at Sutherland was run as a limited liability company, with one-third of the shares owned by South Africa, and one-third of observation hours allowed to South Africa. This facility, together with the Karoo Array Telescope and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) determined South Africa’s astronomy ability. A decision as to the final site for the SKA, either South Africa or Australia, was expected in 2012. Government was committed to building on past achievements and promoting astronomy, which had achieved much due to contributions by all scientists in this area.

Recent tensions between the NRF and SAAO highlighted the need to re-examine the institutional arrangements, location, management and governance of the astronomy sector. reach agreements. The Minister had already asked the NRF to investigate and implement improving relationships in the sector. The mandate of the NRF would be revisited, given that its work had expanded, because of significant investments into science and technology in the past ten years. There was a need to review the NRF Act, which stated that the NRF was responsible for appointing staff to national research institutions, but which was silent on reviews. An Interim Advisory Board would be established to advise the NRF on specific matters regarding the SAAO, pending the establishment, in the longer term, of a National Astronomy Advisory Board, chaired by an independent researcher in the astronomy sciences, which would advise the Minister on the development and management of astronomy in South Africa. There would be ongoing and transparent consultation with the astronomy community, including consultation with senior officials of the DST, the NRF and the SKA, and government must attend meetings of the SALT board and participate more fully on SALT matters. An Astronomy Helpdesk would be established at the DST. The dip in confidence resulting from the disciplinary matters was being addressed, and there would be discussion between NRF’s board and Chief Executive Officer and the SAAO.

A Member was unhappy that this matter had taken so long to reach the Committee, and expressed her disquiet that the NRF had not given a full and public report on the matter, including making documents available, so that the rumours and smear campaigns would come to an end, and suggested that the way in which the NRF had dealt with the matter was driving astronomers to seek alternatives elsewhere. Other Members cautioned that no unfounded allegations should be made. The Minister reiterated that she did not think that she could provide a report herself. Members were worried whether the disciplinary matter would have international repercussions or might affect South Africa’s bid for the SKA, asked what steps were taken to correct the tension between the NRF and SAAO, and questioned the management of astronomy sciences.

Meeting report

Astronomy policy and programmes: Support by Department of Science and Technology (DST) to the National Research Foundation (NRF): Ministerial briefing
Hon Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, said that she would, at a later stage, appreciate being given the opportunity to brief the Committee on the innovation and technology development work being done by the Department of Science and Technology (DST or the Department). In particular, she would like to speak about the hydrogen fuel strategy and the Department’s innovation in titanium and beneficiation of human capital, all of which were key policy areas.

She had been asked to address the Committee today on the disciplinary hearing of Professor Phil Charles, the Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). She had also received letters and e-mails from members of the Astronomy Science profession, had received some from international organisations, and was still receiving letters from the local communities about this matter. Ms M Shinn (DA), a Member of this Committee, had requested the Chairperson of the Committee to invite Ms Pandor to speak to the Committee about the disciplinary matter, and also outline how the Department saw the future of astronomy sciences in South Africa, and what it would do to ensure continued success in this area of science.

Ms Pandor noted that Ms Shinn had asked that the Minister should encourage the National Research Foundation (NRF) to publish a report on the disciplinary hearing. The Minister did not feel it was legally within her ambit to do so, and was not sure what legal steps would be followed through the labour law if the matter was pursued. The Minister pointed out that she was not responsible for employing anyone in national research facilities, and they were employed by the facilities in terms of specific contracts of employment setting out conditions of service. Disciplinary matters relating to any employee at the national facilities must be handled in line with existing labour legislation that governed employer and employee matters.

Ms Pandor said she was aware that, in the minds of both many Members of this Committee and members of the community, the disciplinary hearing of Professor Charles was regarded as distinct from other employee disciplinary hearings. She could not define what would be considered as an “ordinary” and what would be an “extraordinary” hearing, and that there should be no difference between a hearing for a top-level and lower-level employee. All employees had equal rights, in terms of current legislation. Any staff member who was aggrieved by any process in any institution, including the SAAO, in South Africa had recourse to and could pursue the matter through a range of measures, as passed by Parliament. However, given the concerns expressed locally and abroad, the requests from this Committee, and given the Department of Science and Technology’s high regard for and investment in astronomy, she would indicate what steps had been taken.

The Minister reminded Members that the Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the National Research Foundation (NRF) had indicated that this institution supported all the steps that had been taken. The Minister had met with representatives of the astronomy community in South Africa, as well as responding in writing or telephonically to all queries, locally and internationally, and had met with the NRF to discuss the concerns. She had requested the Chairperson of the NRF to investigate what steps should be taken to ensure an improved situation in the science community and local communities. The Minister had also advised the Chairperson of this Committee, and, through him, the National Assembly, of the key recommendations by the Chairperson of the NRF, and had provided a written copy of those recommendations.

The Minister felt that she should revisit the mandate of the NRF as stated in the NRF Act of 1998. This set out that the that the object of the NRF was to support and promote research, through funding human resource development, and to provide the necessary research facilities in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology, including indigenous knowledge, thereby contributing to the improvement of the quality of life of all the people of the Republic of South Africa.

The Minister noted that fairly significant investments had been seen in science and technology over the past ten years, which had resulted in the expansion of the mandate of the NRF and other science councils. They were doing far more than they had done in the past, including managing larger resources and significant projects. A number of extensive assignments had been given in particular to the NRF, without the necessary institutional changes being made. The DST was busy reviewing the existing mandates of all science councils, including NRF, and was evaluating whether to support science councils, or particular sectors of science. Once that review had been completed that Minister would report back to the Committee to indicate how the Department intended to proceed.

The Minister noted that anything deemed to be a national research facility was placed, by the DST, under the control and supervision of the NRF. Examples of national facilities included the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Science (iThemba Labs) , the Hartebees Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) , the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), Hermanus Magnetic Observatory (HMO), South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG).

Any researcher or research institution may, subject to such conditions as the NRF may determine, apply to utilise a national facility for research and instruction. Any national facility was therefore available to all scientists. The NRF could not acquire or manage the operation of any research facility that had not been assigned to it. The staff of the national research facilities were appointed by the NRF, in accordance with its conditions of service.

The Minister had identified that there was a challenge in that the NRF Act made provision for assignment of a facility to the NRF, but was silent about the circumstances in which a review might take place, how it could be conducted, and on what conditions. That was something she wished to address, through legislative amendment. It was likely that legislation required amendment.

South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and other facilities
The Minister then outlined the specific position of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), which was the national facility for optical and infrared astronomy in South Africa, and which was managed by the NRF. Its headquarters were in Cape Town and its observing facilities were located in Sutherland in the Northern Cape. SAAO was the host to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), as well as to a variety of small telescopes run on behalf of or in collaboration with Korea, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom of Britain (UK), as well as a geodynamic observatory and various seismographs. Japan was particularly interested in the seismograph area. The fact that these international facilities were located in Sutherland meant that the international community was interested in what occurred there.

The Minister said that it must be remembered that the facility was not only South African. SALT was an international collaboration, of which approximately one third belonged to South Africa, one third to various American universities and the rest to countries or astronomy partners in Europe. SALT was the single largest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere, and was built at about 20% of the cost of a conventional telescope. It was sited at Sutherland, at an altitude of 1 800 metres.

The Minister wished to stress that SALT (Pty) Ltd was a limited liability company, with a board, that was founded to undertake the construction and operation of the telescope. The Department, through NRF, held about 33% of the issued stock in SALT (Pty) Ltd. Researchers from all over the world used the telescope. The shareholding of DST was directly related to the amount of time (around 33% of observation hours) that South African astronomers were granted to undertake their observations in any given year. SAAO received an income of about R21 million annually as its operations budget for SALT, of which South Africa contributed R6.5 million, which, again, was linked to the 33% shareholding.  

Other facilities also existed for astronomy in South Africa. HartRAO, in Gauteng, was the national facility for radio astronomy, and had a 26 metre dish. The High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) was situated in Namibia, near the Gamsberg mountain, and specialised in high energy levels, in particular looking at gamma-rays. The Hermanus Magnetic Observatory was South Africa's geomagnetic research facility that monitored and modelled variations of the Earth's magnetic field.

The Minister said that the future of astronomy in South Africa was linked to SALT, the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT), and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) $2-billion project to build a radio telescope with a hundred times the sensitivity of any existing telescope. This was also an international project, and would be dependent on South Africa’s ability to develop new technology, appropriate instrumentation, and the necessary architecture for Information Communication Technology (ICT). The SKA had been in discussion since 1993, and South Africa and Australia were the final two bidding countries. A decision was expected on the final site in 2012, although this might be delayed as some countries, who were key investors, were still looking at their future investments in science. Currently, South Africa was focusing on the building of the MeerKAT, while continuing to ensure that South Africa remained a competitive bidder for the larger project of SKA.

Government, building on past achievements, continued to regard astronomy as one of its comparative advantage areas in science. South Africa was recently complimented by Russian colleagues on what it was doing for astronomy and space science, and was working with Russia to build capacity and strengthen partnerships in this area. The SKA bid was on track and the first Kat 7 dishes had been commissioned, and were working well with partners in Africa. The Minister was pleased with the support of the entire Continent. She was also proud to note that SAAO was awarded the International Astronomy Development Office in May 2010, and had signed the agreement in the previous week. The great strides in astronomy in South Africa, during the past decade, were attributable to contributions made by all the scientists in this field. However, because of the burgeoning activity, there was a need to look again at the institutional arrangements and the location, management and governance of the astronomy sector as a whole.

The recent tension between the NRF and SAAO had highlighted the need to reach agreement on the most appropriate arrangements for advancing astronomy. She had initiated broad based consultation and would advise Parliament on the direction to be taken. She had also requested the Chairperson of the NRF to advise on the steps that the NRF would take to strengthen and improve the relationships with the astronomy community, and also to advise the Minister on the best location for authority and facilities related to the advancement of astronomy.

NRF Recommendations
The Minister then noted the recommendations that were put forward, following the work done by Professor B Bozzoli, Chairperson of the NRF.

It was recommended that the Minister should determine a new framework for the development and management of astronomy in South Africa. In the interim, as part of the determination framework, there should be an Interim Advisory Board established to advise the NRF on specific matters regarding the SAAO. In the longer term, it was proposed that the DST should establish a National Astronomy Advisory Board (NAAB), to advise the Minister on the development and management of astronomy in South Africa. It was proposed that the Chairperson of the NAAB should be an independent researcher in the astronomy sciences, as well as a person of recognised stature in that field, and not an NRF or DST employee.

The Minister was requested to support ongoing and transparent consultation with the astronomy community, including consultation with senior officials of the DST, the NRF and the SKA, especially given its place in the area of astronomy. They should advise on the location of the MeerKAT Operations Centre. The Minister was also requested to ensure greater participation by members of government on matters regarding SALT, particularly on the SALT board, to ensure that the Department was playing its full role. The Minister had already asked the Director General of the Department to ensure that he attended SALT board meetings, and the SALT board had welcomed this.

The Minister had also asked the NRF Board to discuss the full implications of the recommendations and discussions arising from the meetings with stakeholders. Pending the establishment of the proposed NAAB, she had suggested that an Astronomy Helpdesk be established to assist with astronomy matters, situated at the DST.

She asked the Board of the NRF also to engage with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dr van Jaarsveld, and corporate executive of the NRF, to ensure that the matters of concern were fully addressed, and to indicate to the Minister how future relationships and the work of SALT would be managed. There had been some lack of confidence, as a result of the recent events, and this must be addressed. Dr van Jaarsveld had already begun to address this, and the Minister believed that relationships had already improved. The Minister also asked that communications and the handling of disciplinary issues must be addressed by the CEO, and had been briefed on the actions taken. She had asked that Dr van Jaarsveld be directly involved with the relevant NRF executive members, when interfacing with SAAO. The Director General of the Department would also oversee implementation of the recommendations that the Minister had accepted. She indicated her broad support of almost all recommendations. She would willingly brief the Committee again, once there was more detail as to structure and form.

Ms M Shinn (DA) thanked the Minister for a thorough update, indicating that she had been attempting to bring this matter before the Committee since February.

She had been concerned, from the outset, that the allegedly high-handed manner in which Professor Charles was handled would have serious implications for South Africa’s international scientific relationships. She cautioned that silence tended to breed conspiracy theories and smear campaigns, and she had therefore asked that the findings and charges against Professor Charles, together with Professor Bozzoli's report on the disciplinary hearing, be publicised so that the public was aware of the real issues, and not conduct vendettas and smear campaigns. She asked that at least the charges and the findings, if not the full report, should be tabled. She also asked that an audit report for SALT be made available. Whilst she appreciated the Minister’s comments about equality of individuals in the disciplinary process, the action against Professor Charles could have international repercussions for the bid for the SKA. She stressed that she had never suggested that there should be any governmental or political interference in the practice of science in South Africa, but was concerned that there must be proper management of South Africa’s scientific stock, research facilities and scientists. The calibre of the bureaucracy and management governing our science bodies was of vital importance. She said that the NRF’s action had already prompted two leading South African astronomers, including Dr D Buckley, to seek alternatives, and asked what was going to be done to ensure that scientific institutions should not chase away, but retain, scientific talent.

Mr M Nonkonyana (ANC) expressed his thanks to the Minister for her review. He was pleased about the steps taken to relieve tensions between the NRF and SAAO, although often such tensions arose from different viewpoints.  Scientists also had strong views and personalities and these all played a role. He was pleased that there was no question of racism in this matter. He sought clarity on the status of the Advisory Board of SAAO and how it was going to act, given its capacity in NRF. He noted the comments of Ms Shinn about “high-handed treatment” but suggested that since no documents were yet available to support this contention, the Committee should restrict comment to the interventions made by the Minister.

Ms S Malao (COPE) asked whether there would be any problem in publishing a public report to ease the minds of the public.

Mr P Smith (IFP) asked what steps were taken to correct the tension and damaged relationships between the NRF and SAAO. He also felt that, if an enquiry was made, then a report should be made available if an enquiry was done.

The Chairperson reminded Members to be careful not to make unsubstantiated statements or unfounded allegations.

Minister Pandor stated that she fully appreciated how important it was for ministers to appear before Committees when requested. She said that despite the fears about the impact of Professor Charles’ disciplinary hearing, she had found, in her international engagements, that South Africa was highly praised for its work in this field, and that nobody had made any reference to the case. She had recently attended a global forum, where her presentation was well received, and where the Australian presentation was not as well received. There was no negativity from the international community overseeing the global process around SKA. The Minister therefore questioned attempts to keep the matter alive, and said that, with the support of the CEO, the Chairperson of the NRF board, and the DST, she had tried to put the matter to rest and to arrive at institutional policy arrangements that would support and give the appropriate prominence to astronomy.

The Minister noted that SALT was a (Pty) Ltd company, and therefore was not subject to a public body audit, but a public audit could be done for SAAO, as it was a public body.  

The Minister commented on the calls for a report. She had asked the Chairperson to institute a process, and she reminded Members that the Rules of the National Assembly and the Constitution provided that a Parliamentary Committee could conduct any investigation and produce their own report. She was not sure why a report was expected from her. She also was not sure about the legal implications of publishing a report, what its content should be, whether people should be named and what might need to be expunged. If Parliament wished to have the hearing made public, it could do so, but she said that it could do no better than what had already been done.

The Minister assured the Committee that Dr Buckley was not moving anywhere. He would be remaining in the country, and she reiterated that the process of improving relations had been instituted. In order to address the tensions, she had asked the NRF Board’s Chairperson and CEO to visit each of the institutions and speak to each of the professors and any other person who wished to address the NRF. Ms Shinn had also been contacted. She and the DST had done as much as they could. As an aside, there were still too few women and black people in the science, and the Minister would continue to take steps to redress this.

The Minister said that the NRF was doing a very creditable job in managing the national facilities. It was, for the first time, able to undertake proper investment in infrastructure and was getting some very good people appointed in a number of the research facilities. Many of the facilities were doing first-rate research; for example the Zoological Gardens were undertaking internationally-ranked medical procedures on animals, and their equipment in the theatres was first-class. She was surprised to hear comments of poor management, and appealed that this kind of negativity cease. She asked that the Department be allowed to develop a more appropriate architecture for astronomy sciences. She stressed the need to pursue a positive direction in establishing the necessary structures and institutions, to ensure that this particular branch of science received the necessary attention from government and the NRF, to realise its potential, which was the reason for establishing advisory bodies.  

The Advisory Board was an interim structure because the Department had not yet determined the final structure. The Department did recognise the weight of the work, which meant that the astronomy sciences could not simply be treated as an ordinary national facility, and specific arrangements may need to be made that recognised the value reposed in it. She wished to place astronomy in a space where its potential and ability was fully acknowledged, and was given full support by the Department, and the appropriate institutional mechanisms.

Ms Shinn responded that it was never the quality of the astronomy sciences that was brought into question, but simply the management of the facilities, as evident by the fact that it had taken six months for the issue to be aired before the Committee. The efforts behind the scenes had changed the way in which astronomers were being managed. Prior to Professor Charles actions, which led to the disciplinary hearing, the NRF was not being managed to the satisfaction of the scientific community, and the disciplinary matter had at least brought matters to the fore, and resulted in this review. She commended civil society, and astronomy and scientific organisations for this matter being put on the public platform. She requested once again that the Minister make available as much information as she could, to quell some people’s attempts, within NRF, to continue the vendetta and smear campaign against Professor Charles.

Minister Pandor said that whenever she received a request she responded to it by booking a date, and the fact that there had been six months of exchange of correspondence did not mean that the matter had lain to one side for six months.

The Minister noted that all reports received by her, including the Annual Report submitted also to Parliament, indicated that the NRF was being competently managed. Accusations of mismanagement should not be made before an inquiry had established the nature of such mismanagement. Professor Charles, like any other employee, was bound to a contract with certain consequences. She had met with him, and the changes now being instituted had in fact resulted from questions she had posed, even prior to her being appointed as Minister, when she had realised the implications of the growth in stature and importance of this area.  

The Chairperson indicated that Ms Shinn was a new Member of the Committee and of Parliament and may not have been fully aware of procedures, which required that the Committee would discuss the matter, and the Chairperson would invite the Minister to attend. He asked that Ms Shinn bear this in mind.

Ms Shinn expressed her frustration at having the Committee hear this issue so late, and took exception to the Chairperson’s remarks. She reminded all Members that she had requested a report on this on 23 February 2010.

Minister Pandor said that this was a matter for the Portfolio Committee to resolve.

The Chairperson asked that Ms Shinn should speak to him to get clarity on the matter.

Ms Shinn disputed the Minister’s response around the notification of the meeting.

Mr Nonkonyana raised a point of order and reminded members that they were governed by rules. He felt that the issues had been dealt with and that other matters raised should be dealt with at another forum.

The Chairperson reminded Ms Shinn that his door was always open to discuss concerns. It was really not useful to debate the history leading to this meeting, but instead Members should focus on the way forward.

The Minister once again acknowledged the letters written, but reminded Ms Shinn that the Minister would only appear if invited by the Portfolio Committee, and when she had received a formal invitation in July she had made the necessary arrangements.

ANC Members asked that the ruling of the Chairperson be respected.

Other Committee business
The Chairperson noted that it would be important for the Committee to visit India to find out about its space programmes, as it was a future potential partner.

Ms S Kalyan (DA) suggested that perhaps a visit to the Institute for Air Space in India would be important, since it had interesting and useful knowledge on be visited since their knowledge with regard to climate change and Air Space was interesting.

The Chairperson answered that he would be going to India primarily to research the Air Space Technology.

Ms Kalyan was pleased to note that the NRF would be sponsoring research interns for Parliament. She said that each political party had been asked to indicate whether they wanted to take on interns, and wondered whether the Committee would also consider having an intern researcher, whose costs would be covered by NRF.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee had received an invitation from the NRF, for the President’s Award Function on 1 September 2010, and that the Committee had also been invited to attend a round table discussion on 9 and 10 November 2010. He noted that representatives from the Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China would be visiting on 5 and 9 November 2010.

Mr Smith asked whether the attendance at the CSIR Conference of 31 August 2010 had been approved, commenting that the House had taken a long time to respond, and this had been pending for a month.

Mr Smith noted that the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) was processing a Bill on which it wanted the participation of this Committee. There were other issues on the Committee’s agenda that still needed attention. He asked whether this Committee was formally participating, as he did not think it was valid, and that it would cause a clash of meeting dates.

The Committee Secretary noted that she was addressing the particulars for the various meetings and would report to the Committee when she had finalised this exercise.

An ANC member referred to poor attendance by Committee members when joint sittings were held with other committees.

Ms S Kalyan (DA) felt that the whips of the various parties should address this matter.

The Chairperson replied that dates for joint sittings were not known long before these meetings, and unless there was a very important issue, it would not always be possible for Members to sit in on these meetings.

The meeting was adjourned.


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