Department of Science and Technology on issues of Global Change and current status and challenges with regard to the Centres of Competence: briefing

Science and Technology

14 September 2010
Chairperson: Mr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) gave a presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology (Committee) on DST’s ten year South African (SA) Global Change Grand Challenge, plans for the next 12 months, progress to date and priority initiatives. DST had identified two particular initiatives that would drive ‘science into policy’ - SA Risk and Vulnerability (R&V) Atlas to assist locally and the Bureau for Global Change Science for policy on a more national basis.

A science-to-policy interface challenge was that the work of researchers was not effectively informing policy decision. The Bureau aimed to enhance the relationship between the two entities. DST aimed at establishing five R&V Service Centres at rural universities over the next 18-24 months and integrated Masters programmes at universities as a means of introducing 21st century integrated training and sustainability skills. With available resources, the Global Change Grand Challenge was clear on its targets. However, increased investment in DST was required to deal with important issues facing SA.
Centres
of Competence (CoC’s) were collaborative partnerships for technology development designed to increase both local and global competitiveness and to launch new market technology and technology commercialization. They allowed for complementary technologies and resources to be pooled and harnessed and encouraged industry-academic partnerships for economic benefit. A challenge was that CoC’s had unclear commercialization strategies and the establishment process typically lasted for an unknown time period (from concept formation to feasibility studies and business planning and establishment). This caused funding insecurity.

DST had progressed in Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technology and had been approached by a number of companies such as Denial, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and universities to exploit SA’s capabilities in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) research.

Members asked questions on the overlap between Climate Change and Energy Grand Challenges, the extent to which the R&V Atlas information empowered municipalities, the position of the Bureau with regard to spending and whether it was realistic to expect ‘science-talk-to-policy’ to convert to change in policy. Members also asked for clarity on whether the notable progress on establishment of R&V Service Centres had been due to their actual establishment or the calling for their establishment and at which rural universities the R&V Service Centres would be established. Members asked if DST had capacity to monitor municipalities on waste management and if SA’s commitment at the Copenhagen summit to 43% reduction in carbon emissions was overambitious.

Members asked for clarity on the business model of the CoC for commercialization of technology, who would lead and drive the commercialization process, if commercialization would be performed by state-funded bodies or if the CoC’s would perform their own commercialization, what method DST used to determine how much money should be invested in a CoC and also how the shares of what might be a multi-partner collaboration would be determined.

Finally, members asked if Energy CoC’s existed, if there were any examples of CoC-type programmes in the past which had worked and if the Platinum industry (catalytic converter) was an example of a CoC.

Meeting report

The Acting Chairperson, Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) opened the meeting as the Chairperson had been delayed due to traffic.

Mr Imraan Patel, Chief Director: DST said that the ten year Global Change Grand Challenge was designed as a project for global science innovation as a whole, not only a DST initiative and therefore DST worked very closely with Environmental Affairs, Water, Energy and other Departments within a multi-policy framework.

SA could make a major contribution in technologies globally and also had the geographical advantage, particularly in its strategic position with the southern oceans, in which to confront environmental challenges.

Key priorities were human capital development and transformation (this was still mainly white male); development of the research infrastructure and research assets; development of the knowledge base; policy, social and economic development; and South Africa as a science destination.

The DST Science Plan addressed a range of questions from the most fundamental to action-oriented questions and also ranged from biophysical science to areas of strong social science and thus could be used as a guide for DST projects and investments.
DST had identified two particular initiatives that would drive ‘science into policy’. These were the Bureau for Global Change Science and the R&V Atlas. The R&V Atlas
provided a platform for local decision makers to be informed on the multiple layers of geo-referenced environmental information as well as socio-economic data it made available on a local level, whereas the Bureau for Global Change Science was initiated to influence policy on some of the bigger issues a more national level. A science-policy interface challenge was that the work of researchers was not effectively informing policy decision. The Bureau aimed to enhance the relationship between the two entities.

Notable progress had been made with the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems (ACCESS) as a centre of excellence for students; significant international partnerships; Africa-Earth Observatory Network (AEON)-related programmes continued to deliver, particularly with new human capital in the area of geological sciences; the electronic and paper-based R&V Atlas portal which has assisted at municipal level; the establishment of five R&V Service Centres at rural universities (over the next 18-24 months); and planning for integrated Masters programmes at universities as a means of introducing 21st century integrated training and sustainability skills.

Other current priorities were technology development roadmaps for waste and water and DST Climate Change programmes with Southern African Development Community (SADC) regions, as river and climatic systems between SA and SADC were linked.

With available resources, the Global Change Grand Challenge was clear on its targets. However, increased investment in DST was required to deal with important issues facing SA.

Discussion
Mr P Smith (IFP) asked if the Grand Challenge on Energy or perhaps another type of Grand Challenge covered carbon footprint, or if the Grand Challenge on Climate Change overlapped with the Grand Challenge on Energy, as there was no mentioned on energy in the presentation and yet it was difficult to discuss climate change without discussing carbon footprint. He also asked to what extent the Atlas information empowered municipalities to act against a given national policy issue, such as acid rain or respiratory disease in Mpumalanga.

Mr Patel said that the focus of the Energy Grand Challenge was very much on the technology aspect of renewable energy. DST had a large contribution to make on technology development and influenced debate on future energy mixes and what was possible technologically based on what resources were available, such as wind technology.

There were no artificial walls between Climate and Energy Grand Challenges but since in the past South Africa had not been a great contributor to global carbon emissions it had taken the decision to ‘peak and decline’ with regard to the carbon issue. DST was conscious of the role it played on the interface of the country’s Grand Challenge and its contribution in terms of the Energy Grand Challenge and software science. DST could provide tools, techniques and methodology with its R&V Atlas and in this way support improved decision making. Whether DST support and influence was effectively used was beyond DST’s control. DST applied power of information where best possible. DST was looking at partnering with the Vulindlela Academy, which was funded by the Development Bank of South Africa, to offer a five-day R&V Atlas course to engineers. DST also planned to directly engage with municipalities and grow the Atlas use base. The Atlas could be used to empower infrastructure planning and decision making but at this stage was not a mandatory tool for policy making.

Mr Smith asked what the position of the Bureau was with regard to spending on research bodies, since the Science Council had underspent on its national target.

Mr Patel said that there were now opportunities where the Bureau could inform DST on where to invest. Although DST was guided by the Bureau, the primary responsibility of DST to spend on its budget lay with the DST.

Mr Smith asked if there was any danger that government perhaps didn’t want to hear the sad scientific truth such as not acting on mercury emissions from coal stations because of the expense of addressing the issue and if it was realistic to expect science-talk-to-policy to convert to change in policy.

Mr Patel said that this was not a science but a governance problem. He believed that science was important for policy but that bridging the gap between science and policy would always be a challenge. DST was making an effort to improve on this problem, which was existed around the world.

Mr M Nonkonyana (ANC) asked for clarity on whether the notable progress on establishment of R&V Service Centres had been due to their actual establishment or the calling for their establishment. He also asked at which rural universities the R&V Service Centres had been established and at which rural universities they would be established within 18-24 months.

Mr Patel said that DST had progressed in issuing fair process in establishment and call for interest from rural universities – such as Limpopo, Fort Hare, Venda, Mafikeng and North West. Together with these universities, within the next 18 months, DST would do a needs-analysis and with the help of donor agencies launch Service Centres at the interested universities, with the ultimate accomplishment being human capital development. If a university did not have a programme which fed into a masters level, then DST would create one.

Ms Dunjwa asked if DST had capacity to monitor municipalities on waste management and if not, how municipalities could be assisted in this regard.

Mr Patel said that the Department of Environmental Affairs was currently holding a two day conference on waste management to which municipalities were invited, which addressed reduction of the size of landfill sites. Municipalities were being asked to communicate their contribution to reducing landfill as part of government’s outcomes approach at improving SA’s natural assets.

Most of the challenges around residential waste were not technological but were about by-laws being in place, such as separation of waste and subsidies for recycle. Where municipalities were dealing with a number of challenges, waste management was not always top of their agenda but there was now a trend in consciousness to do more about waste management. There were corporate and community based groups which supported waste management. DST recognized significant technology opportunities in non-residential waste such as industrial and electronic waste.

The Chairperson asked if SA’s commitment at the Copenhagen summit to 43% reduction in carbon emissions was overambitious.

Mr Patel said their research model identified that although emissions would continue to rise four fold up to 2020, it was committed to a 43% reduction in emissions by 2020. It was indeed an ambitious target, but DST was working together with other departments to determine how it would reduce carbon emissions. DST was building the technology basis to enable the target to be met.

The Chairperson commented that scientists relied on facts from research findings, not theories.

Mr Patel said that these debates were taking place and that this subject would be closely monitored. From a science and technology aspect, this target stimulated the need for development of alternative and renewable technologies.

The Chairperson said although technology development was expected to be an outcome of this target, playing a technology game was politically dangerous. The US had committed to only 17% reduction in emissions. He was concerned that SA could be held at ransom on the international political level for its ‘possible’ commitment.

Centres of Competence (CoC) Programme
Mr Steven Ratsatsi: Chief Director; Innovation Planning & Instruments, DST said that CoC’s were a collaborative partnership for technology development involving government, industry, higher education and research institutions to increase both local and global competitiveness and to launch new market technology and technology commercialization. CoC’s allowed for complementary technologies and resources to be pooled and harnessed and encouraged industry-academic partnerships. Industry was driven by profit motives whereas academia was driven by academic excellence motive. The CoC pooled the relationship between the two to ensure dynamic interaction and economic benefits.

A major challenge was that CoC’s were naturally positioned in a high risk investing space with unclear commercialization strategies and where the establishment process typically lasted for an unknown time period (from concept formation to feasibility studies and business planning and establishment). This caused funding insecurity. Other challenges facing CoC Programmes were lack of suitable intellectual property (IP) and capabilities.

New Fuel Cell and Hydrogen technology had already acquired patents as an outcome of CoC’s and a number of other success stories could be presented to the Committee at an appropriate time. Titanium was used extensively in the medical and space industry and was a focus of current research. The case study of the SA Titanium Centre of Competence, where the laboratories and research facilities alone included CSIR, University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, University of Stellenbosch, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), Central University of Technology (CUT), National Mineral Research Organisation Mintek, Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) and National Laser Centre can be found on pages 24-27 of the CoC document.

Mr Phil Mjwara: Director-General; DST added that a Fuel Cell and Hydrogen technology CoC had been launched at the University of Western Cape where approximately 30 masters and phD students performed research. A private sector German company, Fumatek, was working with these students in the construction of the membranes required for fuel cell production. DST had been approached by a number of companies such as Denel, CSIR and universities to exploit SA’s capabilities in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) research. It was expected that US $600 million would come into SA as a result of UAV exports to an already identified target market.

Discussion
Mr Smith asked for clarity on the business model of the CoC for commercialization of product for profit had not been described in the presentation. He also asked who would lead and drive commercialization when there could be as many as 20 partners involved in the commercialization process.

Mr Mjwara said that business models differed. In the case of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen CoC, they would be set up close to the universities as a small start-up company- an innovation hub - focused on production, taking produce to the market place, making revenue and exporting. The business model would be a spin off of the requirements of the university and if the university wanted ownership this would satisfy DST strategy whereby money invested into universities would be returned to universities. Nuclear Technology Agencies were government entities and a private business partner would be encouraged to take the technology to the market. Directors would be identified to direct IP issues, funding, the business model and training.

The Chairperson warned that the DST should be careful with privatization of nuclear technology as the government had lost out from the Pebble Bed Nuclear Modulator Reactor (PBMR) project.

Mr Patel said that PBMR was no longer a priority for the government, but SA capitalized on IP resulting from PBMR.

Mr Mjwara said that DST had been approached to consider what should be done about the IP generated by the PBMR and how the skills could be used for other nuclear-related activities.

The Chairperson commented that the National Energy Act of South Africa prevented State money such as IP being leaked elsewhere. At a conference he recently attended in Taiwan, SA had been criticized for not having a strategy of collaboration despite having very strong initiatives. PBMR was a very advanced project, ahead of German technology, but it had not been properly managed. 

Mr Smith asked if commercialization of technology would be performed by state-funded bodies such as the CSIR and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) or if the CoC’s would perform their own commercialization of technology.

Mr Mjwara said that DST envisioned TIA as a partner to help identify which products of the CoC were ready for commercialization.

Mr Smith asked what method DST used to determine how much money should be invested in a CoC and also how the shares of what might be a multi-partner collaboration would be determined.

Mr Mjwara said that DST’s role was to identify exploitable technologies and to provide funding and encouragement in technology development. DST did not take share equity but did indirectly.

Mr Smith asked if there were any Energy CoC’s.

Mr Mjwara said that Solar technologies were presently being explored by the CSIR and Sasol. The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen CoC mentioned in the presentation were Energy CoC’s.

Mr Smith asked if there were any examples of CoC-type programmes in the past which had worked. He asked if the Platinum industry (catalytic converter) was an example of a CoC.

Mr Mjwara said that he did not remember if there had been such programmes in the past. There may have been models of supervision where people worked together in pursuit of capabilities required. The Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC), CSIR and Defense Industry had worked closely with some universities in the past but were not called CoC’s.

The Chairperson said that the Swedes had progressed far with Fuel Cell technology but due to expense had been forced to abandon their research. He felt that expense should be heeded.

Mr Mjwara said that it was expected that Fuel Cells in the auto industry around 2030-2050 would be comparable price-wise to current technology. Fuel cell technology in SA was being performed in a targeted industry only. The Hydrogen CoC at UWC had purchased a combined power and heat product from an established manufacturer for R600 000 and reproduced it for R200 000. Thus using collaborative knowledge about fuel cells, catalytic converters and resources, DST was able to cut cost by 1/3.

The meeting was adjourned.

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