Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science: Objectives 2011-2018

Science and Technology

16 August 2011
Chairperson: Mr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) briefed the Committee on its aims, strategy and focus areas for 2011-2018. ACCESS was a consortium of several agencies, research councils, universities, research groups and institutes in the broad scientific fields, who were combining their efforts to deliver on the outputs required by the Global Change Grand Challenge (GCGC) of the Department of Science and Technology (DST). It was indicted that this was a national programme that integrated and coordinated efforts in the country relating to global and climate change. It would allow South Africa to take a leading role on the African continent, and globally, in responses to climate and global change. A ten-year research plan had been finalised, setting out the focus areas, which included technology development, waste management, increasing research and ensuring that it was incorporated systematically into policy. Human capital development was key to the efforts. A number of different engagements would be used, and in 2011 the DST would work with five rural universities to set up risk and vulnerability science centres, building their capacity to produce scientifically backed data for local government. ACCESS was defined as a Centre of Excellence, and had been launched in August 2010 at University of Western Cape, but operated in partnership with several other institutions. It had three main programmes, in Research and Services, Education and Training, and Transformation and Intervention. It would be operating as an integrated and end-to-end research and education services and training platform. It aimed to create interest in science, to attract people to study it, to prepare students and increase post-graduate supervisory capacity, to build partnerships abroad and access international funding. So far, the brand had been developed, and thirty graduate students were funded. 200 undergraduates from a number of different fields had participated in the Habitable Planet Workshops, and some highlighted their positive experiences. In addition, ACCESS was running awareness programmes at school level, media programmes and the “Adopt a School class” initiative. Specific challenges related to the Southern Ocean Observatory were also set out. It was noted that all the research was long-term, ambitious, and had the ability to put South Africa firmly on the world science map. This made adequate funding vital, as ACCESS would require about R50 million per year from the DST, other departments and the private sector.

Members commended the presenters and students on the presentation and their efforts in the building of ACCESS. Noting the desire to alleviate poverty, they asked if there was collaboration with the Department of Trade and Industry, and also encouraged more career development at primary level of the schools. They questioned the demographics of the board, commenting that more women were needed. They received an assurance that indigenous knowledge was acknowledged in the workshops, but were still concerned why South Africans tended not to be attracted to science. A breakdown of the funding was requested, as well as the use of the Agulhas II, and a further explanation of the “Adopt a School” programme were required. Members asked whether all universities were targeted, and sought assurance that all provinces would be included in the programmes.

Meeting report

Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science(ACCESS): Briefing on Objectives 2011-2018
Dr Thulani Dlamini, Chairperson of Board, Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems, and Group Executive for Research and Development, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, noted that the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) was an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST or the Department). It was managed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as a national programme, seeking to integrate and co-ordinate the various activities in the country relating to global and climate change. There was a need to achieve coordination across the country, and ACCESS had been created as the platform or robust exchange on issues of global and climate change. The impact of global and climate change in developing countries, including South Africa, which had very limited water resources, presented more challenges than in developed countries. However, it also created opportunities to be innovative in the development of human capital and long term strategies. ACCESS was helping to develop a contingent of young students and researchers. South Africa was in a unique environment and could make a significant contribution to dialogue and debate on climate change on the African continent.

Mr Imraan Patel, Chief Director: Sector Innovation and Global Change, Department of Science and Technology, briefed the Committee on the “Global Change Grand Challenge” (GCGC), saying that the Committee had been briefed on this before, and he would not repeat what had been outlined then. However, he reminded the Committee that the GCGC was one of the five priority areas within the ten year innovation plan of the Department, and it complemented other priority areas identified within the Research and Development (R&D) strategy. The five priority areas included energy. However, there was a distinction made between the GCGC and the Energy Grand Challenge (EGC), which focused on development of renewable energy.

Mr Patel highlighted the specific role of the DST, as mentioned in previous briefings to the Committee. It aimed to build greater scientific knowledge, both in policy and in terms of implementation of strategies, that would, for instance, assist in the transition to a low carbon economy. This required very detailed knowledge, and the Department’s efforts would allow the country to be an important global player in understanding this evolving science. A ten-year research plan had been finalised, setting out the focus areas. The second of these related to non-energy green technology development, which included commercialising waste management. The third focal area aimed to increase the amount of research facilitated by the Department, and to ensure that this research was systematically incorporated into policy. The best data should be made available to decision makers and local government. Human Capital Development(HCD) was a key performance indicator of the corporate strategy. Patents and commercialisation of products were still at an early stage.

Mr Patel reported that different engagements and initiatives would be used to pursue these areas, which were long-term in nature. In 2011, the DST would be working with five rural universities to set up risk and vulnerability science centres, and this would involve capacity building at those universities in order to provide scientifically backed data for local government

He concluded that the vision for ACCESS was that it must be a world class and leading institution globally, but should still retain a very specific and strong focus on South Africa and Africa. It was currently defined as a centre of national excellence under the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Dr Jimmy Adegoke, Director, ACCESS Board, and Executive Director: Natural Resources and Environment,  CSIR, then briefed the Committee on the ACCESS vision, structure, goals and partnerships. He reiterated that ACCESS was a centre of excellence, and occupied a niche position in both the NRF and within the GCGC as one of the core vehicles for implementing the Grand Challenge programme. ACCESS was officially launched at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 23 August 2010. However, it operated in partnership with several historically disadvantaged and established universities and other research institutions, as well as with other role players, such as the South African Weather Service (SAWS), and National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). The CSIR acted as a facilitator for these partnerships. ACCESS was framed around thematic sub programmes, of Research and Services, Education and Training, and Transformation and Intervention. It had an established framework for management and governance. This would help to build a world-class facility.

Dr Adegoke reported that the ACCESS Implementation Prospectus set out the plan for ACCESS for the next seven years. This operated as an integrated and end-to-end research and education services and training platform. ACCESS had a mandate to produce a new generation of scientists and technically trained people for the knowledge economy.

The main goals were to create interest in and attract young people to science, to prepare students and increase post-graduate supervisory capacity, and to deliver people to manage the technical products. This would require time, effort, funding and the building of effective partnerships. There was also a need to build partnerships abroad, and leverage international funding, in order to have 80% of students as transformation candidates. Younger researchers would be helped to build world class careers.

Dr Adegoke then outlined the key highlights and achievements to date. He noted that the ACCESS brand had been developed. Thirty graduate students were funded, and over two hundred undergraduates went through the Habitable Planet Workshop (HPW). A career development programme was implemented at school level. Several new publications were produced. The governance system was formalised, and collaboration with several partners, and relationships, were developed with entities in the region.

Dr Edgar Neluvhalani, Manager: Education, ACCESS, briefed the Committee on the Education Portfolio at ACCESS. He noted a statement in the National Planning Commission Report that acknowledged that the institutions of higher education were not presently producing the number of skilled personnel that the South Africa economy required. Insufficient numbers of researchers and scientists were being produced. There were also inadequacies at the lower levels in the sciences field as well. The Human Capital Strategy would therefore be key to extending research capacity in the country, so that institutions could work together to strengthen knowledge levels on global issues. In response to GCGC, the goals for human capital development therefore included expansion of research and research supervision capacity, increasing the access to and graduation levels in Global Change study fields, specifically at Masters and PhD level, in the areas of Earth System sciences and Sustainability. The strategy would be directed to strengthening global change knowledge, capacity and social learning.

There were four programmes in ACCESS to deal with the development of knowledgeable, confident and skilled people at different levels. These were the Pipeline Programme, the Undergraduate Programme, the Post Graduate Programme, and the Young Professional Programme. Awareness programmes were being run at schools to educate students through career education, and there were also other school and student programmes, a media programme and an “Adopt a School Class” initiative. There were also collaborations with other institutions. The HPW Workshop was a huge success, involving more than 200 graduates from the Western Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda.

Dr Carl Palmer, Curriculum and Development Coordinator for ACCESS and Researcher, UCT, and his students presented on the Habitable Planet Workshop, saying that the motivation for this Workshop was a collaboration with Professor George Philander in 2007. At that time, South African students were not displaying sufficient interest in the field of science, despite the fact that South Africa, as well as its natural beauty, offered an environment that was scientifically interesting and diverse. Any workshops that were being run at institutions such as UCT were aimed at students who were already in the science field. The HPW was based on the principle that the Rainbow nation was not just built on people, but reflected the diversity also in the environment, physics and biology. It tried to instil pride in the students of their environment, rather than fear for the future and fear for climate and global change, which was the approach that Europe was adopting. He noted that science should also be democratised, rather than being seen as elitist and exclusive. Eight Habitable Planet Workshops had been run since 2007, focusing on why Planet Earth was habitable. These used a reductionist approach, and field trips, were open and inclusive and were aimed at inspiring young, and disadvantaged South Africans. 

Mr Brett Reimers, Masters Student in Applied Marine Science, UCT, outlined his own experience of the HPW. He noted that this created a networking environment to bring university students from all over the country together. Although they were from different disciplines, they could focus on an issue relevant to all. HPW also promoted an interdisciplinary approach, using all facets of science to try to reach solutions to the global problem. All students benefited from increased learning.

Mr Wade Harker, Masters Student in Geography and Environmental Studies, UWC, said that he had found the workshops practical, and they had enhanced his learning experiences by having a “family” of young science leaders interacting, rather than sitting in a classroom. This not only made the topic more exciting, but deepened learning and understanding.

Ms Akhona Nokeva, second year student in Social Work, UCT, had attended the Pretoria workshop, which she described as inspiring. Although climate change was important, it was equally important, in South Africa, to address poverty and a decent standard of living. She had gained an African perspective on climate change, and the field trip had shown her that the response to climate change should have a positive impact on poverty alleviation.

Dr Neville Sweijd, Operations Manager: ACCESS, and Researcher, CSIR, briefed the Committee on the research and services of ACCESS. He said that ACCESS had adopted a thematic approach. Its research focus was directed by a number of themes which provided the data needed to feed and construct the understanding of Earth systems. The seven themes were now in the prospectus. All societies were dependent on natural resources, especially water, and it was important to study these. ACCESS, as a whole, was greater than the sum of its parts. He said that it was a tremendous initiative to bring in all expertise, from research and academic institutions as well as operational bodies such as SAWS.  The National Seasonal Climate Outlook Forum would be working together as one team.

Dr Sandy Thomalla, Senior Scientist, CSIR, briefed the Committee on the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observatory (SOCCO). She explained that there were changes in the Earth’s climate that resulted from internal variability and external forcing, such as the emission of anthropogenic gases. She noted that carbon dioxide (CO2) was a greenhouse gas and therefore warmed the atmosphere. The CO2levels were higher now than at any other time in 650 000 years. The Southern ocean took up more than half of anthropogenic CO2. This was the only part of the water where CO2-rich waters exchanged CO2 directly with the atmosphere. The Southern ocean had the capacity to become a CO2 source rather than a sink, in response to anticipated climate change. This posed serious risks to the effectiveness of projected global emissions. It was, however, an expensive exercise to monitor this, needing either in situ observations, remote sensing or modelling, as it was impractical to use ships.
Dr Thato Mtshali, ACCESS Researcher, CSIR, added that the Southern Ocean research followed two research themes. The first related to distribution of DFe and PFe in the Southern Ocean, done through long term ocean observations. Secondly, the Phytoplankton Culture experiment and modelling was done through long term laboratory experiments.

Dr Jimmy Adegoke noted that the scale of intervention was both big and ambitious. After several years of planning and co-ordination, ACCESS was ready to deliver on the expectations of the GC scientific community, and to the youth of the country. He reiterated that ACCESS was a national programme of DST and had the potential to put South Africa on the world science map. This would obviously have positive outcomes for the transformation of the South African economy. South Africa had the privilege of studying matters that other countries could not. It was vital for ACCESS to receive core funding from the government. ACCESS required R50 million investment into programmes per year with support from DST, other departments and the private sector.

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) thanked the presenters, especially the students, for an exciting presentation, and commended them and the efforts in the foundation phases of ACCESS. There was a political and ideological mandate to see that the people of South Africa benefited. She asked how people on the ground could be made to understand the impact of burning tyres on climate change.

Ms Dunjwa asked why ACCESS did not have a partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry if there was a desire to alleviate poverty.

Dr Sweijd replied that there was recognition of poverty within South Africa, and that the answer would be addressed in the long term one. He gave the idea of a living laboratory, where ACCESS would do good science with people living in that particular area. If one of the children from that area could develop an interest in science, study it at university level and finally graduate with a PhD, that would have assisted in alleviating poverty.

Ms Dunjwa questioned why there were so few females on the Board and asked if it was difficult to source female members.

Dr Dlamini replied that the current ACCESS board was an inaugural board and that they could improve on the representation of females on this board.

Mr M Nonkonyana (ANC) commented that nothing was said in the presentation about indigenous knowledge.

Dr Neluvhalani replied that ACCESS did indeed offer indigenous knowledge workshops. Students were exposed to the local environment and it was acknowledged that much science was indigenous in nature.

Mr Nonkonyana asked about the demographics of the people on the ACCESS board, and how many were South African.

Dr Dlamini explained that the board members were appointed by DST for a fixed period of time. The Board was an advisory and not a fiduciary board.

Mr Nonkonyana sought clarity why South Africa was failing to attract students to science.

Ms M Shinn (DA) asked how much funding ACCESS was receiving from DST, other departments, and for a breakdown of its core funding.

Mr Patel responded that ACCESS was not receiving the funding it would like to receive, but it was positive about the long-term trajectory.

Ms Shinn asked was Agulhas II was, and whether it would carry cargo, and how much would be devoted to research and how much to cargo.

Dr Sebastian Swart, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, UCT and CSIR, replied that the Agulhas was assigned to research for
150 days of the year. The total use of the Agulhas was 300 days of which 150 were assigned to logistics operations and the other 150 days to research.

Ms Shinn sought an explanation on the “Adopt a School” programme, and also asked for the motivation of funding for public enterprises, and any social connection.

Ms S Molao (COPE) asked if ACCESS targeted all, or only specific universities.

Dr Neluvhalani replied that ACCESS collaborated with all universities across the country and did not engage selectively with universities.
Ms H Line (ANC) noted that students at secondary level tended to make ill-informed decisions, and said that awareness and interest-creation should start at primary school level. She also noted that programmes tended always to be rolled out in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal. She asked if the poorer provinces, such as the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape, were included in ACCESS programmes.

Mr Patel replied that the mandate was to develop human capital at the highest levels, and added that the DST and ACCESS could not act like the Department of Basic Education. It did tend to visit prioritised areas. Mr Patel gave assurance to Members that ACCESS would be working in provinces such as the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape.

Mr Ngcobo noted that coral reefs and blue carbons had not been mentioned in the presentation. He also noted that Southern Oceans could create problems in the future. He asked what the linkages were to the Astrological Congress. He also noted that there had not been any mention made of Bloomberg energy. He asked that the scientists should not be too excited about the blue carbon sink as it had the potential to cause future problems.

Mr Patel replied that the focus of this presentation had been ACCESS, global change and the strategy to address this. He agreed that there were other efforts taking place which may not have been raised in the context of the current ACCESS presentation. 

The meeting was adjourned.


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