National Bio-Economy Strategy: Department of Science and Technology briefing

Science and Technology

05 March 2014
Chairperson: Dr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) gave a brief presentation and overview of the National Bio-Economy Strategy, handing out a book to Members to support its powerpoint presentation. The meeting was very brief and there was not time to go into great detail, so the DST merely tabled some of the slides, but did not elaborate upon them. The main difference between the DST’s National Bio-Economy Strategy and other initiatives was that this strategy focused on achieving a social and economic impact. It faced global challenges, primarily the need to be competitive, and the shortage of budget meant that public/private partnerships were key to further development of the initiatives. The strategy covered research and skills development, the need for different technology platforms and Centres of Competence, and strategies for managing commercial development and intellectual property rights. Other departments were also involved, and it was emphasised that often they were the ones who took up and developed technology first identified by the DST. In order to remain at the forefront of technological development, DST had to have access to world class information and had to maintain constant communication with stakeholders. The importance of giving incentives to larger companies for development of innovations was also stated.

Some of the areas in which biotechnology was used were indicated, with a particular focus on agriculture and health, especially improved diagnostics, new research into a TB vaccine, and a single-dose malaria drug, which was being manufactured at the University of Cape Town and biogenic applications on HIV, with DST being described as “well on the way” to finding a cure. Whilst the contribution of African traditional medicines must be recognised, it was also important to acknowledge that certification through testing was important, and this was something that South Africa should be developing itself. There was a significant contribution that waste could play in the environmental sector, in relation to acid mine drainage although there was resistance from communities to use of waste. Some interesting developments in extracting oil, and binding coal dust with algae to create cleaner coal were described. Each innovation would have to be considered in the context of how it could contribute to GDP.  

Members asked for more clarification on the TB and HIV initiatives and asked for updates since April or May 2013. They requested more information on who was involved in the public / private partnerships. They noted that innovations would be particularly important to address agriculture challenges, including erosion. They questioned how the issues of competitiveness impacted, and whether this was likely to filter down to communities, and asked exactly how these particular initiatives would benefit those in the less developed areas and how valuable the initiatives were for traditional communities. Members asked for more information on the waste initiatives, asked what short term strategies were contemplated to increase GDP, and what national priorities were being addressed in the longer term. Members questioned whether the jobs created were sustainable, and wondered what DST might do to assist bio-engineers to grow their business. It was noted that DST had been invited to give a presentation in San Diego on its innovations, which was welcomed by the Committee.   

Meeting report

The National Bio-Economy Strategy: Department of Science and Technology briefing
The Chairperson began the meeting by stressing that there was very limited time available, in view of another meeting immediately following this one, and asked the Department of Science and Technology (DST or the Department) to be as brief as possible in its presentation.

Mr Mmboneni Muofhe, Deputy Director General: International Cooperation and Resources, Department of Science and Technology, tabled the attached slide presentation, but did not elaborate much on the slides, simply showing some of them for the information of Members.

He noted that the main difference between the DST’s National Bio-Economy Strategy and other initiatives was that this strategy focused on achieving a social and economic impact. There were a number of global challenges alongside the need to be competitive (which he elaborated on later). He tabled, but did not elaborate upon the slide dealing with the timelines. In relation to the context and key features of the national science initiatives, he emphasised that there was not a large budget. He noted that there were challenges, but they could also be interpreted as opportunities for improvement.

When presenting the slide headed “Bioeconomy Strategy” he noted that matters of particular importance – although he did not elaborate why – where the capacity for large basic research, capacity and skills development, technology platforms and the Centres of Competence, pre-commercial infrastructure development and intellectual property (IP) management strategies.

This Bioeconomy Strategy was linked to other policies, as listed in the attached presentation. Other departments were also involved, and their roles were linked to who was driving a particular innovation, implementing it and accessing funding. The tables in the slides set out the main areas in which the economy was affected. He also referred to other stakeholders. In respect of the full value chain, he noted that it was not a given that there would be a purely linear process followed, and said that there were times when there could be switching of movement back and forth between the “links” in the value chain.

Mr Muofhe emphasised the need for DST to remain at the forefront of technological development. For this, it had to have access to world class information sources. This access also focused on ethics, but he provided no context for this statement. He said there was a constant need to address the stakeholders and ensure good communication was present. He emphasised also that incentivisation for programmes would help to ensure their success. He stated that there must be good leadership and accountability.

The roles that DST played in the whole process were set out in three slides, and, following up on earlier points about involvement of other stakeholders, he noted that there was a need to identify other partners, particularly in order to access sufficient finance, to ensure that government was not treading the path alone.

Other slides were included setting out the relevance of this initiative for the agriculture and health sectors. The new and improved diagnostics were crucial because of the diverse environments in South Africa. He also elaborated on human health behaviour, stating that changing behaviour would be a preventative measure to  stop some illnesses. He elaborated on the need to recognise generations of knowledge-holders, rather than merely relying upon publications or word of mouth, and emphasised the importance of actually putting knowledge gained to use, in implementing the whole strategy. The African traditional medicine contribution must be recognised.

In relation to the industrial and environmental sector, he noted that waste was a large industry. He stated that some of the areas covered in the slide (see attached presentation) would spill over to mining. He stated the importance of recovering and treating waste water, and said that DST, along with other partners and collaborators, was also looking into how to lessen to the water shortage in South Africa.

Mr Muofhe read through the slide of the indicators to be informed by the study, and said that it was necessary to consider how every single aspect could contribute to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). He then stated that there needed to be high levels of coordination.

Mr Ben Durham, Chief Director: Biotechnical  and Health Innovation, DST, took Members through the slides on the  next steps to follow and stated that there needed to be a focus on the themes to get the programmes working properly. He stated that by the end of the year, the Department wanted to complete the implementation plans and budget.

Ms Glaudina Loots, Director: Health Innovation, DST, believed that the DST was well on the way to finding cures for HIV and Aids and was seeing “everything in action”, citing the example of a woman with whom her programme had been working, in order to understand the implications of HIV better.

The Chairperson asked if this person was a patient.

Ms Loots answered that whilst she was not, she was based at the same place at which the patients were, a place that the Chairperson and Department had visited.

Ms Loots noted that the funding provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had no strings attached to specific research topics. A tuberculosis (TB) vaccine and a malaria drug needed to be approved by the National Consumer Commission (NCC) before being made available at the clinics. These drugs were being made at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Mr Muofhe said that these initiatives were very exciting. He also stated that the Nelson Mandela University had been involved in the bio-energy initiatives. He stated that there was a new oil extraction technique which would extract top grades of oil. He stated the desire of the DST to move out of the piloting stage and to get other industries to join them in larger-scale production. He added that the DST currently was working on black dust innovation, which could use dust extracted from coal veins, and, by mixing it with algae, create a cleaner coal, which not only would result in cleaner energy, but would also assist in cleaning up the environment after mining.

The Chairperson asked for further clarification on the coal innovation.

Mr Muofhe responded that coal dust was used, but the algae was the agent that would hold the dust together, as there was no other way to keep the coal dust bound. He stated it was quite pure, and that it was called coal algae.

The Chairperson asked for clarification on the HIV initiative.

Ms J Terblanche (DA) stated that HIV and TB were issues that many people who did not suffer from them tended to think did not affect them, but said that people from the provinces had approached her on both matters. She was concerned that the DST appeared to be a step behind, according to an article she had read, and she wanted to know if this would remain, with the DST trying all the time to catch up. She wanted an update on the studies being done, noting that the last updates had been given in April or May 2013. She insisted that surely the DST must know how close it was to coming up with a cure.

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) believed that everyone in the country and world would be excited about the innovations outlined in this initiative. She asked for clarification with whom the private partnerships were running. She challenged the Department to address the agriculture issues the country was facing, particularly also environmental problems such as erosion that would make it very difficult for people to live and farm effectively. Whilst she conceded that some of these may be matters that lay with the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, she felt it would be most useful if the DST could contribute to the debate and finding solutions.

Ms Dunjwa questioned the comment that had been made about the DST operating in a highly competitive environment, and was worried whether or not communities would be affected by this concern. She then asked what was causing the high level of competitiveness, and what the role of the private sector was.

Dr J Kloppers-Lourens (DA) asked why she, as a Member of this Committee, had not received an invitation from the DST to the launching of a project in January by the Department. She had been invited by the Chairperson to attend, but as an opposition MP, and felt that all Committee Members’ roles should have been respected and personal invitations issued to them.

Dr Kloppers-Lourens asked whether the DST had had any input or involvement in the Municipal Waste Bill that had been presented in the previous week. She asked what short-term strategies the DST may have in mind for increasing GDP. She also wanted an elaboration on the national priorities and leadership framework.

Mr M Nonkonyana (ANC) stated that rural activists and traditional leaders had intimidated him in many respects, and he was concerned about the lack of mention as to what the Department' was doing for underdeveloped communities and education. He asked if these initiatives were valuable to traditional peoples. He also asked if the jobs created by the Department were sustainable.

Ms S Plaatije (COPE) stated that bio-engineers did not tend to operate in large companies, and asked if the DST had any strategies to help them to develop.

Mr Muofhe started his generalised response by stating that there were too many private partnerships to list in this meeting. Some of the initiatives being run in partnership between the DST and others, such as that with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, were not solely about HIV. Speaking to the comment on traditional medicines, he noted that in China, there was work being done on traditional medicines within universities, who had changed their methodology but standardised methods to best deal with that aspect. He felt that South Africa needed to do the same so that outside companies and investors did not prey upon South Africans and take ideas.

Mr Muofhe clarified that there was high competition, but that could be seen on the global scale. The major challenge was the need to protect intellectual property, but that was under discussion. Intellectual property issues were not limited to traditional peoples but this was a world problem.

Mr Muofhe explained that in the bi-economics area, it was vital to combat traditional subsistence farming methods with use also of manure and bio-fertilisers, to ensure that farming operations would be more successful and grow.

Mr Muofhe stated that 942 jobs had been created under the DST. He noted that the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) fell under DST, and that the DST had made progress. It was unfortunate that those who did not qualify for funding, or who did not succeed in getting what they wanted from DST, would ascribe their lack of success to TIA. However, it was important to bear in mind that the DST and its agencies all had to focus on government priorities, of which health was a major priority.

Ms Loots stated that Biovac was both financing and at the forefront of vaccines. She stated that the Department was looking at pharmaceutical solutions with a private company. The Department provided schools with health information, and used cell phone technology to help spread the health education initiatives.

Ms Loots stated that Ms Dunjwa’s concerns about erosion were valid, but that many of the issues contributing to erosion, such as the lack of trees, were also due to harsh winds and climatic conditions that were not controllable by the DST.

Ms Loots confirmed that she would ask the Department of Health to give a more thorough update on the HIV initiatives. She referenced two case studies contained in “The Bio-Economy Strategy” book, which was handed out to Members, and that showed what the Department was doing. One directly addressed traditional affairs matters. She noted that the malaria drug that was being worked on at UCT would only require one dose to treat malaria, and this would obviously benefit only South Africa but the whole world. She stated that she would keep the Committee updated on that.

In relation to the HIV drugs, she noted that there was still a need to test them on animals, and drew the distinction that the HIV innovation was not a vaccine but a biologic innovation. She noted that the DST had been invited to an international conference in San Diego, California, USA, where it had been granted a one-hour speaking slot to address these technologies and would “brag about” the innovations.  

The Chairperson agreed that the conference in San Diego was important.

Mr Durham stated that the HIV innovation was not a cure as such, but represented a major breakthrough in the understanding of the condition. He stated that DST was not only interested in innovation for its own sake, but also had to focus on growing business. Unfortunately, fiscal constraints affected the quality of work, as well as the opportunity to take these innovations to other companies and expose them. However, tax incentives could be very positive when applied to the larger companies. At the moment, one of the public / private partnerships was running with a genetic alternation company, which was looking into assessing whether a seedling had the potential to grow well or not into a mature tree. In the sugar industry, there were alternative products and technology being looking into, to improve global competitiveness. The DST’s role was clarified in that it was not a department that actually attended to making interventions itself, but it generally would pass along its findings to sister departments.

Mr Durham emphasised that traditional medicines would need to be validated scientifically before becoming fully legitimized for commercial use.

Mr Durham noted that there had been suggestions that municipal waste could be used as a carbon source to reduce acid mine drainage. The problem was that the market was not yet ready to accept the technology and the private sector would need to take the lead in acting upon it.

Mr Durham said that the short term goal was to have 1% GDP growth but that specifics could not be measured, as it would take 20 years to measure the impact of biotechnology. He stated that leadership needed to coordinate government, industry and academia, instead of the current system of each working in silos. He stated that there must be an agricultural impact, and that bio-economy interventions and development must be in support of the national policy. It was not possible at this time to say whether the 940 jobs that were created by biotechnology, would be sustainable.

The Chairperson thanked the Department, and said the Committee must strive to be exposed to the Bio Convention in San Diego to recognise the importance of these issues. He ruled that there was no time for further questions to be asked.

The meeting was adjourned.


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