National Research Foundation 2013 Annual Performance Plan; Technology Innovation Agency board shortlist; Africa Institute of South Africa Act Repeal Bill: deferred; Committee Study Tour Report

Science and Technology

27 March 2013
Chairperson: Dr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The National Research Foundation (NRF) briefed Members on its Annual Performance Plan for 2013/14. It was emphasised that the NRF aimed to bring excellence to all its investments, be this in knowledge, people or infrastructure. It would promote research, develop the human capacity pipeline, and support research infrastructure and research institutions by offering funding, human resource development and research facilities to facilitate creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology. The core competencies included the grant management system, peer evaluation processes and systems, strategic and research information management and dissemination systems, provision of research platforms, and science and technology management expertise. The strategic environment talked to the National Research and Development Strategy 2002, the Ten-Year Innovation Plan 2012, and the Department of Higher Education and Training framework. The investment principles tried to strike a balance between strategy-driven and demand-driven investment, adopting also a competitive and merit-based approach. However, investment was also to take transformation imperatives into account, whilst fairness, transparency and accountability applied to the processes. The NRF baseline allocation would increase by 4.6% in this year. There would be a focus on the staff and succession plan, to deal with sustainability and transformation, and a new Management Development Programme (MDP) was launched in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch over the next three years. The NRF was trying to reposition science advancement more strategically across the business units and was developing a framework for a public engagement strategy, to be presented to the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The National Research Facilities structure was explained. The highlights of the year were noted including the 75 year celebration of the rediscovery of Coelacanth, the progress in the Square Kilometre Array MeerKAT construction, and collaborations.

Members appreciated the thorough presentation, but asked for clarity around the vacancy of the Deputy Chief Executive Officer post. They asked what the biodiversity section of NRF entailed, whether there was any intervention to encourage students to form start-ups. They questioned the reasons behind the funding structures, in particular the sharp decline in cutting-edge research investments, and how the NRF related to other institutions, including the Technology Innovation Agency. The NRF explained in some detail that it felt there was a need for more research in the Southern oceans, to maintain South Africa’s position in the face of strong challenges from other countries, which would require more thought to the level of investment. Questions were also asked about the astronomy field and SKA spending.  

The Technology Innovation Agency had forwarded the list of ten shortlisted candidates for appointment to the Board to the Committee, which unanimously endorsed the shortlist.

The Committee was disappointed that the Department of Science and Technology’s latest presentation on the Africa Institute of South Africa Act Repeal Bill, 2013, differed very little from the last one, and asked that this be revised before the matter was considered further.

The Committee discussed and made proposals on a draft report on the visit to Bulgaria.

the two countries were also important.

Meeting report

National Research Foundation (NFR) Annual Performance Plan Presentation
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Chief Executive Officer, National Research Foundation, said the National Research Foundation (NRF or the Foundation) aimed for excellence all its investments, whether in knowledge, people or infrastructure. It wanted to contribute to the quality of life of all the people of the South Africa by promoting research, developing the human capacity pipeline, and by supporting research infrastructure and research institutions. The NRF supported people and projects that searched for sustainable solutions to the problems facing society. It aimed to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology, including indigenous knowledge.

The NRF Core Competencies included grant management system, peer evaluation processes and systems, strategic and research information management and dissemination systems, providing research platforms, science and technology management expertise, specialised research capacity, catalyst for local and international research collaboration, science advancement expertise and platforms

The NRF’s strategic environment was based on National Research and Development Strategy 2002, the Ten–Year Innovation Plan 2012, and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) funding framework, which envisaged transformation, equitable student access, a high quality of teaching and research, good student progress rates, equity in allocation of government funding, and effective and efficient use of funds.

The NRF investment principles looked at the balance between strategy-driven and demand-driven investment. It believed in a competitive, merit based funding. The investment must take transformation imperatives into account, and fairness, transparency and accountability applied to the investment processes. The appropriate investment choices should ensure efficient service delivery. NRF invested in the rotation of expertise and talent within the National System of Innovation (NSI). The attainment of PhD degrees was regarded as an important systems driver.

He said that the baseline allocation was set to increase by 4.6%. The NRF was engaging in various cost-saving measures (see attached presentation for details). It was benchmarking its organisational overheads against similar organisations, and implementing a staff plan. Student tracking systems were being implemented. Sustainability plans were draw for various national facilities.

The human resources plan included the implementation of the research RISA Renewal Strategy; the implementation of staff plan and succession plan in dealing with sustainability and transformation issues; driving employment equity and transformation toward the employment equity plan for 2015,; and a newly launched Management Development Programme (MDP) in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch over the next three years.

The Ministerial Guidelines for improving equity in the distribution of Department of Science and Technology (DST) and National Research Foundation (NRF) bursaries and fellowships gave the indication of suggested demographic targets and the level of investment for this purpose, which would be factored into the decisions for 2013/14. NRF was also hoping to get increased bursary values.

Dr van Jaarsveld said that in 2013/14, the NRF would look to repositioning with a more strategic role across business units. It would develop a frame for a public engagement strategy, and was making a submission to the DST. There would be a strengthening of science communication initiatives in partnership with science councils and industry. NRF would set a public engagement agenda, with science centres, science councils and other partners. There would be continued development of science advancement, and coordination of science activities at national research facilities. The foundation would also coordinate tracking systems for doing an impact assessment on student interventions.  It would strengthen international collaborations by exchange of skilled resources, and reduce the number of contracts.

He outlined that the national research facilities structure was constituted by the NRF Chief Executive Officer and Deputy Chief Executive Officer (presently vacant), and the Group Executive: Astronomy (a secondment). The NRF would consider the appropriate placement of the National Research Facility and would identify a mindful, phased approach to any changes that would be in the national interest.

The NRF discussed the highlights for the last year, which included the 75 year celebration of the rediscovery of the Coelacanth; the progress in the SKA MeerKAT construction, the South African Large Telescope science being fully operational; iTHEMBA collaboration with the Nuclear Energy Commission of South Africa, ECSA; and SAEON collaboration with National Parks.

The overall growth in the NRF funding reflected positively on South Africa’s prioritisation of research and innovation within the NSI. The grant making was streamlined, through joint planning by the NRF and DST. There was a scaling up of Research and Development (R&D) Enterprise, and a Funding Framework developed. The science advancement required an overarching national strategic framework to elevate its impact. The strategic positioning of the national research facilities was on-going, and there was planning for the future

Ms J Terblanche (DA) noted that there was no staff structure set out in the presentation and asked if the Foundation could provide the Committee with its vacancy rate.

She asked what the biodiversity section of NRF entailed.

Mr P Smith (IFP) commended the presentation of NRF as very interesting and very challenging. He noted that on slide 8 of the report the presenter spoke of black rated-researchers and female researchers, but asked what the blue line of the graph represented. He also asked for percentage comparisons, saying that if there were many black and female students as researchers NRF had lessened the problems. 

Mr Smith asked whether there was any intervention in terms of the innovation curiosity-driven research to encourage students to form start-ups. At Harvard University there were 100 start-ups in the science and technology arena, encouraged by the university itself.

Mr Smith asked, under the “investment grand challenges”, what percentage NRF was contributing towards geographical and/or research advantage. He cited the example that it might be contributing less than ideal on Antarctic research, but this could be supplemented by other departments. He referred to slide 13 and requested more clarity.

Mr Smith asked if there was a reason for the sharp decline on cutting-edge research investments, as mentioned in slide 16.

Mr Smith asked why the allocations for Global Change Science Plan (R64 million) and SKA SA project (R300 million) were ring-fenced, as mentioned in slide 17.

Mr Smith asked how slide 24, which specifically referred to the Ministerial Guidelines for improving equity in the distribution of DST/NRF bursaries and fellowships, compared to slide 19, which referred to a merit-based funding system. The principles seemed opposed.

Mr Smith asked whether the funding trends were sustainable for the long term, since slide 17 showed the graph sharply rising and flat, or whether the NRF had interventions for a couple of years to get it to the new level and then planned to ease off again.

Mr Smith asked how long the position of the Deputy CEO: Research Infrastructure and National Research Facilities been vacant.

The Chairperson asked the reason why this post was vacant.

Mr Smith wondered why the target of students supervised by staff of facilities had not varied much between 2010/11 (272) and 2015/16 (297), and why NRF was not aiming for a much higher and more ambitious target.

Mr Smith also asked what had been done to address the need for an overarching national strategic framework to elevate the impact of science advancement.

Dr J Kloppers-Lourens (DA) asked how NRF had determined the targets, noting that some of the targets were lower than the actual performance.

Dr Kloppers-Lourens asked how the Department of Basic Education was involved in the NRF strategic environment, in terms of the government outcomes. She asked whether NRF did spread the message of science to learners, and how successful it was in doing that.

Dr Kloppers-Lourens asked whether the budget of Square Kilometre Array (SKA) was going to increase in the second phase, since the investment in the project was substantial in the construction phase, and whether the operation and maintenance of SKA project was going to increase. She asked the foundation to provide more information on the 7 Cap dishes which differed from first MeerKat dish.

She asked the NRF to explain what it meant by the reduced number of contracts in terms of science advancement developments in 2013/14. She also asked as to where exactly the Research Chair in Science Communication would be established.

Dr Kloppers-Lourens asked when the research for value of science for social development was due.

Ms S Molau-Plaatjie (COPE) asked what the specific target was on the female staff component of the foundation and what strategy there was there to hasten the process of gender equity.

She asked the presenter to elaborate on how the indigenous knowledge was growing in the NRF.

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) noted that Dr van Jaarsveld had stated that the NRF was intending to move away from a bureaucratic way doing things to a more client-oriented system. She asked if that was because the bureaucratic system delayed implementation of programmes, or whether it was moving to a new public orientated system.

Ms Dunjwa asked why the NRF had chosen to partner specifically with Stellenbosch University for the newly launched Management Development Programme (MDP). She also asked whether the NRF engaged with the students, and whether that was done in the context of its partnership with the Department of Basic Education.

Ms Dunjwa asked the Foundation to provide information about the impact the Science Centres were making in communities.

The Chairperson commended the presentation, but asked Dr van Jaarsveld to provide more information on the science innovation outputs that were highlighted in slide 7 of the report, noting that these were targeted as 0.57 in 2011/12, 0.59 in 2013/14 and 0.65 in 2015/16. He also asked him to clarify and explain slide 30, which dealt with emerging researchers and cross cutting investments, and to state how NRF was involved in the research.

Mr Patrick Thompson, Group Executive: Human Resources, NRF, said that as at 31 January 2013, the NRF staff numbers were 1 222. It was planning, with effect from 1 April 2013, to have 1 374 positions which would leave a vacancy rate of 11.1%. Most of the vacancies were in the area of SKA because of the construction of the 64 dishes. These vacancies would largely be of the technical skilled people.

Ms Terblanche requested the Foundation to forward a formal documentation of the vacancy rate at NRF.

Mr Thompson said the NRF would make available the staff plan once it was approved by the NRF Board.

Dr van Jaarsveld noted that the biodiversity sector was an area of investment that NRF was not funding on its own, because there were various departments that were involved, such as the Departments of Environmental Affairs, Water Affairs, and others. However, NRF was focusing on investing in those areas where it felt the system was under funded, and there were historical areas of investments that it had always supported. However, it had also engaged with DST and the Department of Arts and Culture about the other areas of concern. It had launched the management of the biodiversity collections, and it was studying this to assess the present state of the collections. There were ongoing conversations between the Minister and the Department of Arts and Culture, to try to unravel and deal with the problems.

NRF had nonetheless made some competitive funding into the area of biodiversity and focused on areas where it felt there was a critical need to make an intervention. It should be remembered that the biodiversity funding had a strategic innovation component, which looked at new products and new pharmaceuticals that could be created out of biodiversity; another area in which DST had historically invested in.

Dr van Jaarsveld explained the funding of students. NRF had always funded post graduate students according to demographics, ideally wanting to reach a proportionate balance between national demographics and funding. This was not always achievable although NRF tried its hardest. All students funded went through a review system to get feedback from their supervisors. NRF wanted to fund people who could do the work to a higher degree at the end and that was its fundamental benchmark, which was assessed by those engaging with the students, who would then make recommendations on which should be funded, to the NRF. NRF had sometimes missed the demographics targets in a particular year because applications were miscued but in other years had achieved them. It was difficult to manage.

Dr van Jaarsveld noted that NRF had managed start-ups through its programme, which was at the tip of the NRF’s fingers in terms of their area of influence. This was also the mandate of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) but there were attempts to manage and transfer projects from NRF to TIA, which had more experience of start-ups. Many of the universities in the country were pushing the innovation angle in terms of post graduate students, and had special programmes that would allow the students to apply for innovation research support.

Dr van Jaarsveld said that the percentage of the grand challenge research investment that NRF funded was variable in different areas because of different kinds of grand investment challenges. In the biodiversity sector, there were other departments who had invested in that area, and NRF had made its own contribution. There were other areas of grand challenge investments, like the Southern oceans, but this was problematic because the contributions that came from other departments were not really research focused, as they funded the logistics of managing the vessels in Southern oceans and keeping staff on the marine islands, rather than directing funds to the research itself. The idea was that there should be a collaborative partnership, with other departments funding the logistics and DST funding the science research. However, the level of investment needed to be thought through. The politics of the Southern oceans could become a major issue, because of climate change and other reasons, and South Africa should be stepping up its profile as a nation and increasing its level of visibility, which was currently insufficient. Some other very aggressive roleplayers – such as Japan and Indian – were in that research space. NRF was worried that South Africa’s efforts in the Southern oceans were uncoordinated and the vessels were not being properly utilised. It felt that there should be dedicated science voyages, otherwise South Africa would lose out strategically.

Other areas of grand challenge research investments included astronomy and the sustainable energy sector, where other departments were on board.

Dr van Jaarsveld said the SKA spending was rather complicated, and South Africa was committed to building the MeerKat, a 64-dishes antennae array, which would be completed by 2016. The antennae that had been built for MeerKat were totally different from Cap 7. Cap 7 used a central fed antenna where the receiver was right at the middle of the dish, but the MeerKat receiver was on the one side of the dish. It was a completely new design, and there had to be a demonstration of how it worked. The idea was that the first antenna of the Cap 7 would be developed by the end of the year. He invited the Committee to visit and view the MeerKat project construction.

Dr van Jaarsveld then commented on the graph in slide 16, noting a slight increase, and then a peak. That was due to the focused infrastructure investment in the 2010/11 financial year, and it was a once off injection which was a very valuable contribution. He noted, in answer to the questions on spikes in funding generally, that there were two contributing factors. The first one was the impact of the once-off injection of funds. This was a short term injection which made a difference but was not sustainable for the future, meaning that funding would thereafter return to the baseline. Secondly, there were some special investments, such as the special spending on emerging researchers, where the programme would roll out over two to three years, with a particular focus on black and female scientists. The DST and National Treasury saw this as an area of focused investment, driven by the strategic intent, but this would make an impact and show sustainable results into the future. This was therefore a long term investment scenario, with a once off injection.

Dr van Jaarsveld explained the vacancy of the Deputy Chief Executive Officer, noting that there was a document produced by the Ministerial Review Committee, which reviewed the whole science system. One of the questions raised there was the future placement of national facilities, whether these should remain with the NRF or should go elsewhere. There had been discussions with the DST and the Minister in this regard, in which the Minister confirmed that NRF would be hosting national facilities into the future. Up until recently, it was not clear whether this would be the case, and if not, the NRF would have no reason for a Deputy CEO. Now that there had been clarity on this point, it would re-think how to manage that post into the future.

The NRF had been managing a few of those national facilities outside the astronomy area, to try to get things going as best as it could, without appointing additional staff.

Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) Board: Shortlisted candidates
The Chairperson said that the last time the Committee met with the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) it had been asked to send the shortlist for the Minister’s appointees, in accordance with criteria recommended, to serve on the TIA Board. That list had been sent to the Chairperson, and he was happy that the Minister had apparently given due consideration to gender, expertise, equity and the areas mentioned. He was satisfied with the list.

Mr Smith noted that the proper procedures had not been followed to adopt the shortlist formally, and asked that this be done.

The Chairperson read the ten names of the shortlisted candidates as follows:  Ms Helen Brown, Mr Fadl Hendricks, Prof. David Kaplan, Dr Steve Lennon, Dr Boni Mehlomakulu, Ms Khungeka Njobe
Adv Motlatjo Ralefatane, Dr Petro Terblanche, Ms Rosetta Xaba and Mr Mohamed Moolla.

Members adopted the list formally, and said this would be communicated to the House, by way of a Report, and the Minister.

Africa Institute of South Africa Act Repeal Bill, 2013
The Chairperson said there were two versions of the presentation, a former and new one, but he was disappointed in the new presentation, received that morning, which was almost the same as the previous one

The Committee agreed that the Department of Science and Technology should go back and prepare a proper presentation, and deferred further discussion on the Bill.

Draft Report on Committee’s visit to Bulgaria
The Chairperson tabled the draft Committee Report (the report) on its oversight visit to Bulgaria, and said there were seven recommendations the Committee needed to consider, in response to the Bulgarian Leadership and Embassy. The first recommendation stated that members encouraged the Bulgarian officials to look at establishing a dedicated Ministry of Science and Technology which would have a primary focus of developing their own system of innovation.

Mr Smith said there was a distinction between a recommendation and an observation, and that was an observation.

The Chairperson agreed that it was an observation, and asked Members what they would recommend.

Mr Smith said that there were actually only four recommendations in the report, and the rest were observations.

Ms Dunjwa suggested that one of the observations would be on the Bulgarian practice, and whether to advance the core mandate in that area of science.

The Chairperson reminded Members that the Committee needed to formulate a concrete proposal for sustaining the interaction with Bulgaria.

Mr Smith said that this could be translated into a recommendation, by saying that should the Bulgarians wish to establish a Ministry of Science and Technology, the South African Ministry would engage with it.

The Chairperson supported that proposal, which revolved around establishing a relationship with DST.

Mr Smith said that if the South African Government and the Bulgarian Government first established a science and technology agreement, then all other issues could fall under that agreement.

The Chairperson agreed that if that agreement was made, then the South African Science Academy and the Bulgarian Science Academy would follow suit.

Mr Smith suggested that the Chairperson and Committee Secretary be mandated to finalise the drafting of the report in line with the recommendations, which would then be forwarded to the Minister. He suggested that the recommendations be worded in such as a way that specific individuals or entities should take definitive action.

The Chairperson thought exchange visits between the two countries were also important.

Ms Klopper-Lourens suggested that an invitation to visit should be extended to the Bulgarian counterparts.

The Committee agreed to adopt the report after it was redrafted by the Committee Secretary and the Committee Researcher.

The meeting was adjourned.


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