Department of Science and Technology on its 2014 Strategic Plan

NCOP Public Enterprises and Communication

16 July 2014
Chairperson: Mr E Prins (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology highlighted that the Department will be putting a lot of resources into their programme dealing with astronomy and the programme will be growing. Although the programme has a small budget right not, that budget will grow as the programme begins to grow. Another area of focus is human capital. Innovation comes from people, and so one of the most important pillars for DST is education. The Department has the goal of supporting a hundred PhD students per million in the population. During the discussion, DST noted that when comparing South Africa internationally, not just in government, but in the private sector as well, companies like IBM spend a lot of money on hiring PhD graduates. South Africa has been increasingly involved in the international community and working with international organisations is not only beneficial because of the funding, but because it gives them access to information and research elsewhere, facilitating innovation at home. 

During the discussion, Members asked questions about the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS), which will be established in six provinces: Kwa-Zulu Natal, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, North West, Free State and Western Cape. Members asked why the programme had not been extended to their province or they wanted to know the status of other DST programmes in their province. The Department explained that the reason that their programmes are not placed in every province is that DST does not have province-specific agencies, and so it is not necessarily province-oriented. However, they do have programmes in all provinces, and if a certain programme is not placed in one province, they will have another programme that is better suited to that province instead. The Department offered to develop a list of programmes per province.

Questions were asked about vacancies in the Department and Department explained that their vacancy rate was below 8%, a percentage that complied with the law. The number fluctuated because people were constantly changing jobs. DST is not very big and so two or three people affect the percentage significantly. 

The Department was asked if it tracked what happened to students after they left the research programmes and if there were ways of tracking the impact of the research and publications on a national and international scale. DST explained it worked with the National Research Fund (NRF) to track progress. Papers and publications are hard to track. Sometimes one can see their impact internationally, but some papers have no impact per se, they just advance innovation. 

Meeting report

The Chairperson noted the apologies from the Minister of Science and Technology and the Director General and after introductions handed the floor over to the Deputy Minister.

Ms Zanele kaMagwaza Msibi, Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, said that it was her pleasure to introduce the 2014-2015 Annual Performance Plan on behalf of Minister of Science and Technology. The plan is aligned with the National Development Plan. It recognises technology, innovation and science as key drivers for the nation. As the Members may be aware, the Department has put a lot of money into the development of the sector. The Department wants to keep on working with key partners and international community to reach its goals. In science and especially in astronomy, they are working with other countries in Africa to move forward. There is still much to be done to ensure transformation of the sector to attain some of the country’s key national reforms. Passed to the acting deputy general.

The Chairperson thanked the Deputy Minister.

Prior to the presentation, Mr M Rayi (ANC; Eastern Cape) asked for the timeframe that the Chairperson had given to the Department to present. He noted that due to time constraints, there was often not time for Members to ask questions and for the Department to respond. 

The Chairperson said that she had spoken to the Department and it was aware that it needed to be brief in its presentation to allow room for discussion. Mr Patel added the presentation should take about 40 minutes.

Department of Science and Technology presentation on 2014/15 Annual Performance Plan
Mr Imraan Patel, DST Deputy Director General: Socio Economic Innovation Partnership, highlighted the areas that the Department needed to facilitate. These are the ongoing public science and technology missions: biotechnology, Information and Communications Technology (ICT), advanced manufacturing, and astronomy. The 2004 Strategic Management Model had outlined the responsibility of science councils. DST had realised that there was a need to review the model which it was doing, especially the research and development sectors. Since 2009, the South African Space Agency has been a very important sector. Last year, there were two important changes in the Department, one of them was in the economic area and the other ITC. Some of the comments he made were as follows:

National Research & Development Strategy

This dealt with ways in which the Department’s work can make an impact. Most programmes have to either improve the quality of life or promote job creation, which at times go hand in hand. DST had looked at the gross expenditure on research and development around the world, and realised that to become a driver in research and development, South Africa had to spend 1% of its Gross Domestic product (GDP) on R&D. This was a sensible goal, since countries like Israel and Korea spent 2- 2.5% of their GDP on R&D. The 1% was a Cabinet approved goal. Unfortunately, the 1% target had been set for 2008, and they have yet to meet their goal.

Research Development & Support
There are four sub-programmes: Human Capital and Science Promotion, Basic Sciences and Infrastructure, Science Missions and Astronomy, with Astronomy being one of the most important programmes. 

Socio-Economic Innovation Partnerships
The purpose is to enhance the growth and development priorities of government through targeted S&T-based innovation interventions and the development of strategic partnerships with other government departments, industry, research institutions and communities. The portfolio constructed the purpose in alliance with other departments.

Recent High-Level Achievements and Trends
The Department wants to grow the human capital, and one of the biggest goals is to have a hundred PhDs per million of the population. 

Knowledge Exploitation
The Fluoro-chemicals Expansion initiative is an important plan because not many countries can work with Fluorine as it is not easy to handle as it is highly reactive. It is because it is highly reactive, that they can combine it with other chemicals to make useful products. The idea is to create new products that have potential. He highlighted that they are now working with more international partners. This is noteworthy because international researchers only want to work with the best, and so international partnerships show that South Africa is very good at research.

Research Infrastructure
The Department established a National Recordal System to capture, store and manage indigenous knowledge. Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) documentation centres have been established in six provinces: Kwa-Zulu Natal, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, North West Free State and Western Cape. 

DST Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) Budget Estimates

Mr Patel highlighted that half of the budget goes to Research Development and Support. Much of it is for the National Research Foundation programmes and bursaries so as to reach the goal of hundred PhDs per million people. Compared to other entities, though, their budget is very modest. 

The 2014/15 allocations for the South African National Space Agency and the Technology Innovation Agency are small because they are new programmes, but they are expected to grow and so is their budget. 

The Chairperson thanked the Department for an informative presentation. 

Mr C Smit (DA; Limpopo) thanked the Department and asked about its role in developing science at the lower school level. There was a bit silence on that, but he believed that that is where they should start. He gave examples of constructing labs and such at schools. He also asked where the Department thought that it had a gap and wanted to develop more. 

Mr M Rayi (ANC; Eastern Cape) noted that the final slide is the only slide about “the way forward.” It mentions an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) project in one rural area; however, the presentation does not say anything about other rural areas. DST is involved in the manufacturing of the electric car and he asked if the Committee could get a status update on that project. On the subject of disease, he asked if the Department had any other research going besides HIV/AIDS, such as cancer research. Looking at the Annual Performance Plan (APP), he asked about the previous achievements for some of those plans. It would be helpful to have some sort of international comparison and analyse how other countries are dealing with these issues. DST is giving a lot of money to universities and he asked what it was expecting in return. He asked if universities were duplicating their efforts in providing research opportunities or if DST had a system for giving assistance. Maybe it would be good to say that a certain university must assist with a certain project and another university work on a different topic. He asked about DST’s employment profile and asked if it was complying with the laws of the country. Some departments had photos of senior management which made it easy to see who was in charge of what. He asked how DST is structured. 

Mr A Nyambi (ANC; Mpumalanga) noted that when the committee members introduced themselves, they all indicated the province that they were coming from. However, only in the last sentence of the presentation, is there mention of strengthening provinces and rural areas. DST should have realised that it would be talking to people that represent provinces. One cannot merely add one slide to indicate DST’s impact on all the provinces. The Committee appreciates all the things that DST is doing, however, the Committee needs to criticise constructively; not just for the sake of criticising. DST is ranked as one of the best departments, and can be used as a model. However, it cannot be a model department if it does not provide information on the provinces for the committees of the National Council of Provinces. As for the IKS system that they are placing in six provinces, he would like more information on what is going on in the other provinces that were not mentioned. Why is the IKS project not implemented in other areas. Was DST thinking of expanding this opportunity. On the other hand, for the Human Capital Development graph, the Committee is not interested in the names of people. What would be helpful is a slide with a breakdown of the provinces and how each of the provinces is making use of the opportunities given by DST. The National Development Plan (NDP) has identified science and technology as key drivers of economic change, and so it is important to deal with the vacancies within DST. The department cannot work at optimal level if there is a large vacancy rate. He asked how DST would deal with improving the vacancy rate. The Committee needs the information. Otherwise, it was a very good presentation that will help the Committee make informed decisions. 

Ms C Labuschagne (DA; Western Cape) asked if DST has a way of tracking if students are still involved in an area of research after they have finished their studies assisted with funds from DST. Otherwise there is no use in producing the students if there is no return in the investment that DST has made. On the knowledge generation plans, she asked if DST had a record of how many research reports are being used by DST or other departments. She asked if DST tracked the percentage of reports recognised national or internationally, otherwise, there is no impact and nothing coming out of the money. On the national economic resources on health and agriculture, she asked about if there was any progress and alignment with other departments, especially the Department of Environmental Affairs, which is working on biodiversity and conservation. DST must be careful that there is no clash, but cooperation. Since the bulk of the budget is going to the National Research Foundation (NRF), she asked if DST could give a breakdown on the types of projects that the foundation has.

Ms B Masango (DA; Gauteng) asked where DST was getting its funding, and if funding is not secure, how will they reach goals? She asked the reasoning behind depending on other sources for funding. 

Mr A Singh (ANC; KwaZulu Natal) thanked DST and the Deputy Minister for the information. He asked if DST could highlight where most of the vacancies were and where senior position skills were lacking. 

The Chairperson said she had to leave due to a pressing NCOP commitment but thanked the Deputy Minister for attending and the Department for the presentation, which had helped the Committee understand where DST wants to go. 

Ms kaMagwaza Msibi thanked the Chairperson for the respect that she gave DST by showing up, even though she had other commitments. As the Department and herself specifically, she respects the Chairperson and the role that she plays, because she is in charge of oversight – the checks and balances – and she ensures that people benefit from government programmes. She thanked the Members who acknowledged that the Department is full of professional people who do their job, and do not let partisan politics get in the way. That is why DST has such great audits, and DST commits itself to continue delivering great results. On the question why certain provinces will benefit from a project and not the others, the Committee will understand that DST does not have departments at the provincial level. In terms of schools, when she arrived, she was asked the same question about education at lower levels, especially for black students who do not have funding to go to university. However, there is a Department of Basic Education and a Department of Higher Education and their mandate is to assist post-graduate students. 

Mr Singh asked if the Committee could have some of the answers in writing.

The Chairperson said that before continuing, she wanted to thank DST for taking the scientific and technological revolution very seriously. She asked that DST proceed to respond to the questions and some of their responses would need to be in writing. 

[Mr O Sefako (ANC; North West) took over as acting Chairperson]. 

Mr Patel noted that some of the answers are detailed in the strategic plan, so he would see what they could take from there and send some answers in writing. In terms of Basic Education, the Deputy Minister had effectively dealt with that. As its mandate goes, DST is doing its best with the budget it has received. Right now DST is working on how to make science centres more effective. On the question of where DST feels that they need more funding, he has to look at the department as whole, so colleagues do not think that he is pushing his programme. If they compare work that is done internationally, places like IBM employ PhDs in mathematics. So looking as to where they need to invest, he would say that DST needs to invest in more human capital development. He would argue for a broader base strategy. As for the ICT question, DST needs money that does not necessarily have to come from government, but private entities as well. If push comes to shove and the Committee gives DST extra money, DST has the mechanisms on how invest the money where it is needed.

Mr Patel said that the reason that DST has certain programmes in one province and not in the others is that DST cannot have these programmes in all the places. For example, there might be a programme for which the Eastern Cape is keen on, and so DST has moved forward with the project. However, he could easily generate a list of projects by province. DST might not have a certain project in a province, but it will have other projects in that province. DST is working on several projects with traditionally black universities and a number of other universities. The nature of the project depends on the type of research that a particular university does. If the Committee wants statistics, which the NRF can do, DST will be happy to deliver the statistics. Those statistics are important; they show that DST does have provincial projects in one way or the other. The Deputy Minister had highlighted the need to understand that DST does not have a specific provincial presence. DST is working on collecting data that needs to run for a year or two before writing reports. It is the first time that DST is asking provinces where they are spending. He hoped that he had addressed a good number of the questions. He will leave the question on the electric car to others who do more extensive work on it, such as the Deputy Director General of Technology Innovation, Mr Mmboneni Muofhe.

Mr Patel said that there are two ways that they fund universities, through the NRF, which is an established grant generator, and those projects that are funded by agreement with a university. That agreement sets out what the university needs to deliver to keep the funds, and if the university does not deliver, DST pulls the plug. On DST programme equity challenges, women have been prioritised and 48% of senior managers are women, as compared to 52% elsewhere. The statistics also fluctuate because the cohort is not very large, and when two or three people leave, the statistics change. DST works with people from all places, and so it is a very diverse, representative department. He can give real statistics later. If any Member feels that they need information on a specific province, he asked that they send a formal letter and give DST time to gather the information. It is in DST’s interest as well to have information on the provinces. The distribution graph can be generated whenever they need it. Internal controls in a department is something that you have to work on day and night. Whenever something comes from an internal audit, they note the issue, identify corrective actions and make the changes. He said that the vacancy rate changes every month, but it never exceeded 8%. It is impossible to keep a steady rate because people always leave; however, they make sure that the performance of DST is not compromised. For certain matters, DST puts together a panel of experts. A lot of the funding is used when it does not make sense to have internal work on a subject matter. Sometimes there are jobs that need certain expertise for a specific period of time. 

Mr Patel noted that there were a lot of questions on a system for tracking human capital development. DST is currently working with NRF to develop a better tracking system. Whether research and other publications are being used, he commented that publications are hard to track paper by paper. However, they can track some papers that are widely used on a international level. Some papers have no impact and they merely advance knowledge and that is how things are. The NRF does provide equipment grants, universities apply and the application goes through a process outside the organisation. There is peer review and outside counsel on whether a university will receive the money, DST does not even have a say in it. The reason that the ball goes to NRF is because of the need for bursary support. The reason that they want international funding is not a matter of money, but a matter of whether the research is internationally competitive. In Europe there is a programme to encourage European countries to do research together. They opened the programme up for African countries, and in terms of volume, South Africa has been as successful as the United States and Russia. As such, international funding is an opportunity for South Africa, not just for the money, but for being part of research networks, to help innovation and information sharing. Moreover, there are not a lot of department vacancies; in his section there are only two vacancies. Those two positions have been long standing. There were two candidates that were seen as qualified, but they declined the offer because they both took another job. Everything is fully staffed. The green economy work that they are doing is new energy. There is a big programme in new energy. For example, DST is developing road map of where they need to invest in waste and water technology. Once they have the roadmap, they fund people and technology development. The green economy or technology is all about people and technologies.

Deputy Minister kaMagwaza Msibi noted Ms Labuschagne’s question, on where students had found jobs and whether DST has records on the NRF grantees. This had also come up at the last meeting, and it was important to get these statistics and give a proper answer. 

Mr Patel said that he was surprised at how many interns are involved in the programmes and how many are staying on as researchers. For this type of information they also need to look at global benchmarks. It is a complex issue and they need to introduce some sort of information system, which will require some investment. However, it is a matter that DST has prioritised and it has been asking the same questions. 

Deputy Director General of Technology Innovation, Mr Mmboneni Muofhe, said one of the slides shows that DST has institutions that are new and that respond to the challenges that are facing the country. The biggest challenge is an emerging silent killer: metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. A lot of universities are working on treating problems such as diabetes. On the question of where South Africa stood internationally, it is not in the top five in the world. However, when one compares numbers and researchers with India, China, Russia and the United States, South Africa is one of the countries with the highest scientific productivity. The outputs are quite high, even when compared to other BRICS countries. The IKS project covered six provinces and two are left out, however the plan is to expand to the neighbouring institutions, but DST needs additional funding. One of their strategies is to work closely with other departments dealing with agriculture, environment, trade and industry. On the electric car, one of the challenges is that they do not have a South African car. However, the technology that has gone into the car is part of research that is being explored at universities. They are even testing the technology on golf cars. DST is working towards building the technology that will go into a car. They have also worked in other partnerships on solar panels. 

Deputy Minister kaMagwaza Msibi noted that they had responded to all of the questions raised.

Mr Sefako thanked DST and said he was very happy with its progressive input. He hoped that the more rural provinces will be assisted by technology. Also he hoped that new technology would be able to accurately trace and detect when human beings, such as miners, are trapped, and where and how to rescue them. He hoped that the written responses would be made available to the Select Committee no later than 22 July because the responses will support the budget vote. 

The meeting was adjourned. 


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