Public awareness of science issues: National Research Foundation briefing

Science and Technology

23 May 2012
Chairperson: Dr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The National Research Foundation briefed the Committee on efforts to promote and support research. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) had formulated a “Vision 2015”, that emphasised provision of funding, human resource development and research facilities, in order to promote knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology. It also emphasised the importance of promoting internationally competitive research as a basis for the knowledge economy. The National Research Foundation (NRF) sought to encourage public engagement in science , and part of this involved scaling up investment in public engagement, and promoting greater public understanding of the critical role of science and technology, through wide dissemination of information that promoted science as relevant and attractive. It was also important to increase participation in science by women and previously disadvantaged persons.

NRF ha a total budget of R118 million, but it was explained that the largest part of this came from contract funding, and sponsors determined the scope of research and efforts, which was why there was a larger focus on education in the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). The primary targets were school learners, the general public and tertiary institutions. School based interventions included learner camps, education workshops on content and methodology, and provision of curriculum educational resource materials. Learner and educator participation in science festivals was encouraged. NRF had run a pilot project to identify and nurture talent through the Science Olympiads and competitions, and was trying to track learners who had participated in these. Although there were some problems with the systems, 88% had registered at Higher Education Institutions, and 62% of the top group had reached their third year, of whom 63% were male and 37% female. There was also intervention in the eighteen DST Dinaledi schools, and two had been “adopted” in each province. Some science networks were established, and there was a significant increase in the participation of people in the National Science Week. SAASTA had implemented the Nanotechnology Public Engagement Programme, and other engagements included the Science Expos, Science Camps and Media Round Tables.

Members questioned when the amendments to the NRF Act would be made, asked why there was such a focus on education, and emphasised the need to put more focus on Indigenous Knowledge Systems. The Committee also highlighted the need for the Department to facilitate the participation of South African students at international platforms, and said that they had received a lot of invitations. There was a need to focus more on astronomy. Members also commented on the need to demystify the inaccurate perceptions by the youths that Agricultural Science was a subject associated with rural areas, or that science should be a subject for the elite. They questioned the unequal distribution of Science Network Centres across the provinces, questioned why NRF focused much on physical science while ignoring human and social sciences, and wanted to know more about support to the Dinaledi schools. The Committee would engage with National Treasury on the budget, and also try to involve the Departments of Basic and Higher Education in another meeting with the NRF.

Meeting report

Public awareness of science issues: National Research Foundation (NRF) / South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) briefing
Ms Beverly Damonse, Group Executive: Science Advancement, National Research Foundation, explained the Department of Science and Technology (DST) “2015 Vision”. This sought to promote and support research through funding, human resource development and the provision of the necessary research facilities, in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology. This would in turn contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of all the people of South Africa.

She noted that the National Research Foundation (NRF) sought to encourage public engagement in science as one of its three defined business divisions. The development of an overall NRF Investment Framework included scaling up investment in public engagement. She said the 1996 White Paper Policy Framework highlighted the need for a society that understood the critical role and importance of science and technology. For this reason, it was vital that science and technology information should be disseminated as widely as possible, in ways that were understood and appreciated by the public. One of the focus areas was thus to make science attractive, relevant and accessible. Part of this would include increasing the extent of Public Understanding of Science, Engineering and Technology (PUSET) initiatives, whilst it was also important to increase participation in science by women and previously disadvantaged persons.

Ms Damonse noted that NRF wished to advance public awareness, appreciation of and engagement in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Innovation (STEMI) in South Africa. NRF’s strategic approach was divided into three main categories of Science Engagement, Science Education and Science Communication, with a particular focus on Science Education.

Ms Damonse gave a brief overview of the Group’s projected total budget for the financial year 2012/13, pegged at R118 million. She also noted that much of the Department’s budget came from contract funding, then Medium Term Expenditure Funding, then other allocations from National Treasury (see attached presentation for details).  She highlighted her concerns over the withdrawal of funding by partners in the Edcon group, due to the current economic situation.

She then noted that the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) expenditure, per unit, showed that education received the largest portion of its funding, followed by science and then communication. SAASTA’s primary target audience consisted of school learners, the general public and tertiary institutions. Its wider strategic target audience included the science community, industry, media and outreach and awareness sector.

Ms Damonse highlighted some of the school based interventions. Learner performance was supported through organising learner camps during school holidays, education workshops on content and methodology, and provision of curriculum educational resource materials to learners, educators and schools. There was encouragement of learner and educator participation in science festivals, such as National Science Week, and interaction with traveling science exhibits, science shows and science theatres.

A pilot project had been run, to identify and nurture talent via participation in olympiads and competitions such as the Natural (grade 6 – 9) and National Science Olympiads (grade 10 - 12). NRF promoted Science Education and Technology (SET) careers awareness in learners and educators through interaction with appropriate role models in SET-related industry, through visits to different science-related industries, and provision of career educational resource materials.

SAASTA had also intervened in the eighteen DST Dinaledi schools, and two had been “adopted” in each province. For these schools, there was free participation in the National Science Olympiads, provision of education resources, extra tuition in mathematics and physical science, formation and support of science clubs, and learners and educators were sent to attend international science events.

Ms Damonse added that NRF had also started a pilot programme to track science and maths learners who participated in Science Festivals and Olympiads, to see how they progressed later in the SET field. This had recorded great success, although there were still some financial challenges and challenges around the organisation of the system. In 2010, about 160 top 2009 National Science Olympiad (NSO) participants were tracked. 141 (88%) ha registered for 1st year at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). In 2012 about 99 (70%) were tracked again, who were still at the Higher Education Institutions, by now in their third year. That meant that 62% of the NSO top group still in HEIs. Their gender representation was 63% male and 37% female.

NRF had also established some science network centres throughout the country, with most of the centres in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. These were to assist in the promoting and support of SET.

Research conducted showed that the greatest number of students at tertiary institutions were not influenced by their parents in deciding upon their degree choices. It was important to encourage more learners to take up science subjects.

Ms Damonse also noted that an overwhelming increase in the participation of people in the National Science Week, growing from about 175 905 people in 2007, to about 338 625 people in 2011. That was a positive move in the teaching and learning of science.

She also said that SAASTA had implemented the Nanotechnology Public Engagement Programme, which aimed to promote credible fact based understanding of nanotechnology through awareness, dialogue and education. It also enabled informed decision-making on nanotechnology innovations and helped to improve the quality of life.

Other positive engagements included the Science Expos, Science Camps and Media Round Tables to ensure dissemination of accurate information and clarification of contentious science concepts on nanotechnology and other issues.

She highlighted that NRF promoted sustainable energy innovation, material development and distribution. The science institutions were working in collaboration with other countries to promote and improve understanding and competence in various areas.

Mr P Smith (IFP) questioned the legislative gap, commenting that the new legislation had now been outstanding for some time.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee to revisit the NRF Act and see if there were other gaps that need to be realigned.

Mr Gansen Pillay, Acting Chief Executive Officer, NRF, said that NRF had made some changes to the NRF Act last year. Other departments like the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training also had to be brought on board, but he assured Members that the gap would be closed quickly.

Mr Smith questioned why the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) level of funding had remained unchanged over a number of years. He also questioned the status of engagement over the years from the National Treasury.

Mr Smith wanted comment on why there was unequal distribution of the Science Network Centres around the country.

Mr Smith questioned the sharp decrease of the number of learners being tracked, from about 7 000 to about 525. He asked what this meant to NRF’s programmes.

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) expressed her concern over the way in which science had always been treated a domain of the rich.

Ms Dunjwa wondered if NRF offered any adult science schools in their programmes. Ms Dunjwa thought that NRF should give more information on agricultural science and veterinary science, and, in particular, emphasise that these studies did not limit a graduate to working in the rural areas, as was a popular misconception.

The Chairperson urged the promotion of talent throughout the country. He emphasised that those from the rural areas, and not the elite only, should be targeted for training, and quoted a saying that “As long as you are not insane, we can train you in anything in science”. He also emphasised the idea of demystifying of the idea of agricultural science being associated with the rural areas only, and urged that more and better advice should be offered to learners

Ms J Kloppers-Lourens (DA) questioned why NRF focused much on physical science while ignoring human and social sciences.

Ms Kloppers-Lourens questioned the particular support given to Dinaledi schools. She also wanted to know more about support given to educators, and whether the NRF contributed to curriculum development.

Ms Kloppers Lourens indicated that she would like to hear more about the success rate and the challenges faced by NRF.

Ms Kloppers-Lourens asked about the nature of the Olympiads. She also asked what mitigatory plans were in place, following the withdrawal of funding by Edcon.

Mr M Nokonyana (ANC) asked the NRF to specify which Dinaledi schools it had adopted. He also asked why there was no Science Network Centre in the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape?

Ms Dunjwa asked what NRF was doing itself to promote Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS).

Ms S Plaatjie (COPE) questioned the exclusion of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) from the report.

The Chairperson also commented on the need for the inclusion of IKS in the programme. He said that he had not been able to establish the exact linkage between the programmes and the international world’s programmes, for the support and development of science. He added that South Africa depended much on international collaboration rather than attempting to develop the youth on its own, so it was vital that the students must also participate at international platforms. South Africa had received a lot of invitations and NRF must ensure that South African students also participated at international platforms. He noted that South Africa was leading in astronomy.

Ms Damonse emphasised that the DST already had seen fit to put a lot of emphasis and focus on Indigenous Knowledge, and this was included in the national programme. The theme of “Science and Technology for Economic Development” took indigenous knowledge into account. However, at the moment NRF did not have a specific IKS programme.

Mr Pillay added that the NRF did regard this as a very important area. He added that there was a huge reservoir of knowledge that had not been tapped as yet, in the rural areas in particular. Four universities had been established in the rural areas, with a major focus on IKS and this was evidence that Indigenous Knowledge must find its way in today’s science.

The Chairperson commented that two Bachelor of Science Degree courses in Indigenous Knowledge Systems were to be launched next year at two universities, University of Venda and the North West University. He emphasised the need for SAASTA to focus much more on Indigenous Knowledge.

Mr Pillay noted that a large part of NRF funding was contract driven. The sponsor therefore often dictated the programmes to be offered, as well as the focus of thus programmes. The main focus of many of the sponsors was currently on education, and this then dictated the focus of the NRF. He noted, in response to Mr P Smith’s question on the MTEF allocations, that discussions were under way to have a larger portion of the budget that was not contract driven.

Ms Damonse agreed that the main reason for the focus on education was that such a large portion of the budget was contract funded.

Mr Pillay said that part of encouraging learners to take up SET as careers involved use of role models in science, who would go out to schools to actively encourage learners to be more serious with SET and astronomy.

Ms Damonse added that NRF was putting emphasis on career education. It had been working with the Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Research Council on a booklet called “Career as an Agricultural Scientist”. The new booklet would shed more light on careers in Agricultural Science. NRF was also providing curriculum material and content as a way of supporting and promoting SET.

The Chairperson urged NRF to give the Committee more information on the current stage and positioning of South Africa in terms of astronomy. He said it was very important.

Ms Damonse responded to the questions on the SAASTA Science Network Centres, noting that where they were situated depended largely on cooperation from the provinces. For instance, Mpumalanga Province had put in its own funding in support of SAASTA. In some provinces NRF was welcomed with open arms, but in others NRF had not found it easy to penetrate the provincial administration. In some provinces, like Gauteng, there was a lot of work being done already, similar to what NRF was doing, and a conscious decision would be made not to repeat these types of programmes while neglecting other provinces that had no such programmes running.

Ms Damonse said that the tracking case study that NRF had done was quite difficult, because of the poor systems then available.  After learners left school it was difficult for NRF to track what happened to them thereafter. She said that the system should be better organised around career education. She added that at times, the DST provided career guidance but learners failed to enter Higher Education Institutions and it must be remembered that a lot of their decision had to do with whether they could get funding. However, it was understood that NRF had to reach out to the learners at an earlier stage.

Mr Jabulani Muneri, Managing Director: NRF/SAASTA said that there were 18 schools that NRF had adopted and there were two schools per province. He emphasised the point that there were a number of role models who had indicated willingness to work with NRF.

The Chairperson expressed his concern over the availability of the education support material produced by NRF. He questioned how learners could get access to the material and if the Department had enough education support material.

Mr Pillay said that NRF had limited resources. He would like to see all respective government departments coming together to make sure that these resources were made available.

The Chairperson said that this Committee would try to obtain a joint sitting, with the DBE and DHET, to try to iron out some of the issues raised. He advised NRF to utilise whatever it could at the moment, but also promised to help persuade the National Treasury to reconsider the budgeting.

Other Matters
The Chairperson handed a letter to the Mr Pillay from a school in the Eastern Cape that was seeking assistance in getting SET support from the Committee.

The Chairperson commented that much of the success of Asian countries was attributed to the high focus that they placed on science education. He recommended that the more focus must also be put on science in South Africa. It was possible to build a better South Africa, but more must be done.  

The meeting was adjourned.


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