South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions; Science and Technology Review and Recommendation Report 2012

Science and Technology

24 October 2012
Chairperson: Ms M Dunjwa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions had been established in terms of an Act of Parliament. It covered a wide range of natural sciences. Membership was compulsory, but there was some discretion. Only registered scientists were allowed to perform certain functions in terms of the Act. Membership of the body had been increasing over recent years. There were historical problems due to the low profile of science in the education system. The Council worked with academics in order to develop the curricula.
Members questioned the logic of having a single body covering the wide spectrum of natural sciences. There were advisory committees for each branch. They wished to know what kinds of functions could only be performed by registered members of the Council. They asked how the academic world was involved with the Council, and if there was any involvement at a Basic Education level. They were told this was not possible due to the Council's capacity constraints, but it was important to train scientists from a young age and mathematics was an essential subject. There was a statutory process for adding to or deleting fields of study.

Members expressed ignorance of the existence of the Council. The public needed to be made aware of their functions. There was co-operation with the Department of Science and Technology. Members were concerned over the gender and racial balance, but were told that girls had traditionally been less inclined to follow a scientific path. There had also historically been little importance placed on science and mathematics at black schools. A growing aspect was environmental science. The public's rights to enjoy the environment were enshrined in the Constitution, but in protecting the environment there was a chance that projects such as housing developments might be delayed.

The Committee adopted its Science and Technology Review and Recommendation Report 2012.


Meeting report

As the Chairperson was ill, the whip of the majority party chaired the meeting. Ms M Dunjwa (ANC), the Acting Chairperson, welcomed all Members and guests, and called on them to introduce themselves. She noted that the delegation from the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP) was all male.

South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNSAP) presentation
Prof Norman Casey, SACNASP President, said that the idea for SACNASP dated from 1992. A number of professional groups had felt the need for their own regulatory Act. Previously, membership was voluntary and the body was a club of like-minded people. In 2003, the current government had felt that all natural scientists should be registered. This would protect the public. Members covered eighteen fields of practice, which was a very broad stream. Even at university level, there was a variance in standards. Industry wanted people who were creditable, which in turn increased the credibility of that company. There was an indirect influence on society. He mentioned an example of a case of toxicology. There was now a reputable system concerning items such as facial creams which did not necessarily fall under legislation regarding medicinal products.

Prof Casey said that water care had not previously been regarded as a science. SACNASP had set up a specialist committee which had resulted in a dedicated water care group. Remote sensing was another branch. Systems might be mounted on the moon, Mars or other extra-terrestrial locations in order to monitor what was happening in space. Overseas experts should be made welcome in the country.

Prof Casey said that South Africa was ranked almost last in an article published in The Economist in terms of science education at primary school level. The Council was looking at ways in which science could be shown to be a lucrative and exciting career. There was a good relationship with the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Dr Rolf Becker, Executive Director, SACNSAP, said that the Council had not met with the Committee for several years. The Natural Sciences Professions Act of 1993 had been voluntary, but that of 2003 introduced compulsory registration. However, the Council had not reached the level of visibility that was required.

Dr Becker said that professional scientists provided a service to the public, and the public had a right to be protected from malpractice. The profession also had a right to be protected to ensure proper conduct. The function of SACNASP was primarily to register natural scientists, and to represent the practitioners. An acceptable level of training was needed. There was an obligation to advise the Minister on matters relating to natural science. The overall function was ensuring safe and responsible practice by registered scientists. The Act went into great detail on how this could be achieved.

Dr Becker said that SACNASP represented natural scientists. It also represented the community. Much money had been invested in training scientists, and there was a wide range of intellectual capital. This represented a major investment in the country's future.

Dr Becker listed the principles of SACNASP. The first was the use of scientific evidence to inform decisions and shape policy on a routine basis. Science should be protected from financial and political interference. He quoted an example from the USA, which had banned the use of a certain research method as it was reaching an unfavourable conclusion in the eyes of local government. Knowledge was fundamental to science.

Dr Becker said that there were three levels of certification. These were Certificated Natural Scientists, which required a three year degree and five year's working experience. A Candidate Natural Scientist had to have a four year degree but no experience was necessary. The third category was of Professional Natural Scientist.

Dr Becker said that the category of Certificated Natural Scientist had two levels. The requirement for Level A was a three year national diploma or Bachelor's Degree, and one year appropriate working experience. The Level B certification needed a two or three year national diploma, followed by three years work experience or five year's experience in the case of a two year diploma. There was a strict requirement at Level A, but this was a bit relaxed at Level B.

Dr Becker explained that the benefits of registration were recognition by one's peers, the public and the Council. A registered member would have professional status. It would enable the profession to strengthen itself, as was the case in the field of medicine. Work as identified under the Act could not be done by a non-registered scientist. Registration was also required in order to qualify for an occupational specific dispensation (OSD).

Dr Becker described the process of registration. It was a rigorous and time-consuming process, but this was necessary to preserve standards. The application was sent to a professional advisory committee (PAC), which made recommendations to a registration committee. If there was any doubt about the qualifications, there was a qualification assessment committee to decide on their validity. Finally, Council would approve the registration. The process could take up to six months. There was an appeal process as well.

Dr Becker showed Members statistics on membership figures. The number of registered members had increased steadily since 2006. In 2012, the increase had been 200. The age profile was changing, with a decrease in the number of members over the age of 60, and a healthy increase in the number of young scientists. Many older scientists were retiring, and it was important that their replacements be prepared to take over. The number of women was increasing. The current figure of 27% was low, but had been increasing gradually since 2006. It was not easy to get young girls involved in the profession.

Dr Becker said that the composition of Council was male-dominated, and was only changed every four years. One of the DST officials present was on the SACNASP executive. There had been a dominance of white people. The current figures were 71% white, 23% black, 4% Asian and 2% coloured. The number of black registrations was increasing. As at 1 October 2012, there were 369 certificated natural scientists (an increase of 28% since 30 April 2012), 453 candidate natural scientists (increase of 46%) and 4 562 professional natural scientists (increase of 5%). This added up to a total membership of 5 384 (increase of 9%).

Dr Becker said that there were eighteen fields of practice. Of these, 28% of members practised geological science. The international body for geological science had approached South Africa for assistance with developing standards. The figure of 10% for environmental science was too low. It was important to clamp down on how this discipline was practised as there were many problems in the field.

Dr Becker listed some current projects. One was to strengthen SACNASP. The body was being made more relevant. Visibility was being enhanced. A policy of continual professional development was being followed. The registration was being streamlined. Indemnity insurance was being investigated. Awareness campaigns were being conducted. Future projects included greater involvement in the development of curricula, accrediting training centres and engaging through social media such as Facebook.

Mr P Smith (IFP) wanted to know about the structure of SACNASP and its staff complement. He questioned the logic of having a single body to cover the concerns of such a disparate group of scientists. The Act prescribed that certain work could not be done unless the practitioner was unregistered, and asked what was contained in the Act. He felt that the targeted persons were mainly consultants. He asked what the position was of academics. He asked if the figure of eighteen fields was exhaustive, and if additions were made by SACNASP itself or if this was done by statute. He asked why there was a limit on fees. He asked if any of the fields had their own bodies in addition to SACNASP, and if so, if there was any regulation of conduct. He felt that the number of 5 300 natural scientists was low. He asked what percentage this was of all the natural scientists in the country. Curricula were decided by academic institutions, and he asked how SACNASP could contribute. He was confused by how the categories of membership were listed.  One of the functions was to protect the public, but he felt that the vast majority of the public was unaware of the existence of the Council. He asked what leeway there was with enforcing the Act.

Ms S Plaatjie (COPE) was unconvinced by the efforts to restore the gender balance. She asked how communities could be assisted. She asked what was being done to promote students in the rural areas. On the projects indicated, she asked if any were being done together with DST.

Ms J Kloppers-Lourens (DA) noted the review of qualifications, and that the qualifications offered by certain institutions needed to be vetted. She asked what was being done in this regard. She asked how standards were determined and monitored. She asked if there were any local examples of financial and political interference. During 2009, the number of newly registered scientists had dropped from 190 to 110. She asked why this had happened. The presentation referred to 5 384 scientists, but the table reflected figures of less than 5 000. She asked if this was as a result of recent registration. She also questioned the visibility of the body. She asked if there was any interaction with the Department of Basic Education (DBE), or if the curriculum development was only for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Curriculum development was a science in itself, and the work of the unit had been stopped.

Ms Dunjwa was taken aback over the attitude to the recognition of prior learning. She asked if the public was aware of this. Members were very interested to the class, gender and race of SACNASP members. She asked how many foreigners were included in the membership. She had attended a meeting of Council members some years previously in Port Elizabeth, and had observed that the room was full of white, old, rich men. The offices were in the Summerstrand areas, and the majority of the population felt excluded. Housing developments were being stalled due to the requirement for environmental impact assessments. There could be no discussion on talks with the Department of Higher Education (DHE) without discussing DBE.

Prof Casey explained that having a single Act did have its difficulties. The Act was an enabling one. SACNASP was a federation of scientists practising in various fields. Specialist advice was needed. Matters concerning curricula were discussed together with these specialists and academics. Rigid curriculum requirements had excluded many students, and had since been relaxed. Geology 1 had not previously been registered as a first year subject. Members were assessed not only on the degree they possessed, but also by their package of competencies. While there was interaction with the DHE, a forum had been formed with the Deans of Science at the various universities. Some universities offered a science degree, but many subjects did not fulfil the definition of a natural science.

Dr M Dyasi, Vice President, SACNASP, said that the Council did not receive any public funds. It used membership fees to finance its activities. There was a plan to include the DST in planning, and this could be a source of funding for future projects. He drew the attention of Members to the Council being a reflection of the current and historical education system. A scientist had to be groomed from Grade 7. Mathematics was the basis for any form of science. Few people chose science as a profession as a result. Science had not been prominent in black education. None of the black universities had trained engineers. There was a resultant tendency not to have blacks or women trained as scientists. This situation needed to be corrected. Even poorer and less developed nations performed better than South Africa. Historically, women of all races had not been attracted to a scientific career. The registered number did not fully reflect the number of women. People who were trained as scientists, but worked in other fields, were not registered as members. He estimated that less than 50% of practising scientists were registered.

Dr Dyasi thought that the very existence of the Council was to ensure ethical behaviour. The impact of fracking in the Karoo would have to be investigated. He had grown up in a mining area. Many people had contracted mining-related diseases. Scientific bodies had a role to play in protecting the public. Science was the reason for the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but a scientist might have advised the Allies better on the consequences of their actions.

Mr Poobalan Govender, Professional Advisory Committee (PAC): Environmental Sciences, SACNASP, said that the statistics were based on registered members. A Council was appointed by the Minister to oversee the activities of SACNASP. This body included representatives of universities and the industry
. The second leg was the office and administration, and the third the membership. Science should be used to benefit society. Industry had been driving the registration of their employees. Without registration companies could be opened to legal responsibility. Reputation disputes might lead to cancellation of projects. To minimise these risks, industry recognised the need for a professional body. It was not uncommon to see environmental impact studies hindering development projects. One of the reasons South Africa had the best constitution was Section 24, which gave all South Africans the right to a good environment. The vast majority of the people neither knew about these rights or how to enforce them. The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 1998 had sought to address this.

Mr Govender said that if damage to the environment could not be avoided, the developer had to ensure that plans were in place to minimise damage. Strict observance to the environmental rights would prevent any development. A lot of work was needed to get people to realise their environmental and other rights. By registering environmental scientists and practitioners, the principles of NEMA could be applied and responsible development could proceed. This area was now the third largest sector within the natural sciences.

Dr Becker said that SACNASP was very small in terms of staff. He had a staff of four people. This hampered the ability of the Council in acting effectively. The staff would be doubled in the following two years. Additional fields were added or deleted following a legal process led by the Minister. There was good interaction with most universities, but it was impossible to touch every curriculum. Specialist groups would consider any request for new curricula, and some of these specialists were academics. The classification system was an inherited system, and would be addressed. It would be difficult to get all universities to act in concert. The industry would hire competent people. He could not comment on the drop in membership, as he had not been a member at the time. The 17% increase in membership for 2012 was the figure of 700.

Dr Becker said that education was needed on the Council, but also on science generally. Capacity problems mitigated against getting too involved at a basic education level. There were 230 000 matrics writing mathematics in 2012, a decrease from the previous year. This was a potential disaster. Social issues were a primary reason for girls not studying further in the sciences. He mentioned an example of a girl who had stopped her studies due to the higher lobola that she would command as a scientist and might thus not find a husband. More detail on the number of students would be provided in writing.

The Acting Chairperson said that science cut across all sectors of society.

Ms Kloppers-Lourens asked if the Council would be educating the public on the issue of fracking. Many branches would be involved.

Prof Casey replied that a prominent scientist had addressed the Council twice on the international experience. It was not a direct responsibility for the Council, but cognisance should be taken of what the real problems were. He did not have the sanction of Council to say this, but he hoped that there would be some work done by DST in this regard.

Science and Technology Review and Recommendation Report 2012
The Acting Chairperson noted that quorum was present. She proposed that Members approach the document in a systematic way.

Ms Kloppers-Lourens was impressed with the document. On page 3, she asked that the micro-satellite industry be included. An additional bullet point could be made.

The Committee Researcher said that the AMRC had been included in the report and would cover this concern.

Mr Smith said that there had also been a recommendation.

The researcher said that the Committee had reviewed financial performance in the 2011/12 financial year, but also on the first quarter of the current FY. Members agreed that this should be mentioned, as was the case with other Committees.

Mr Smith said the entities were largely ignored, and the report focussed on the DST itself.

He was told that this was indeed the case.

Ms Kloppers-Lourens thanked the Secretary and Researcher.

Mr Smith proposed that the report be adopted.

Ms H Line (ANC) seconded the proposal.

The Acting Chairperson thanked the Members for their work and the good spirit in which their business was conducted.

The meeting was adjourned.


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