National Research Foundation & Council for Scientific and Industrial Research briefings

Science and Technology

30 July 2014
Chairperson: Dr B Goqwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The National Research Foundation (NRF) briefed the Committee on its aims and activities, noting that it was mandated to provide funding for research in Higher Education Institutions. It provided the necessary facilities in the country to advance international competitiveness in the field of research, but there was a need for far more investment in the research fields. NRF had specialised research capacity, engaged in international collaboration, provided grants for science and technology and management expertise, all of which were directed to promote science to benefit society. The NRF contributed to the 10-year plan for the Department of Science and Technology. Particular highlights included the Mzansi for Science campaign, the National Science Olympiad and National Science week, all of which aimed to promote science to young people in particular. Established researchers would be used to assist new entrants into the profession. Other infrastructure and investments were apparent in the nuclear, biodiversity, environment and conservation science, and there was considerable investment in astronomy.  Transformation of the research environment was important. Challenges facing the NRF included its own growth and funding, the need to refocus national resources on respective science plans, and the need for better collaboration with the higher education sector. Member asked about the number of applications, and funds given, suggested that private sector investment into the NRF should be encouraged, wondered how far the NRF had gone in achieving Vision 2015, and whether National Science Week should be extended. They enquired about the transition to the new Board.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which had existed for 69 years, noted that it aimed to elevate the role of science in South Africa, make a positive contribution to lives of people in South Africa, and elevate the role of science and technology to impact upon the economy. It had produced 301 doctorates during its existence. It collaborated with other public research institutions who shared similar mandates, and its research extended into materials science, modeling science, indigenous knowledge systems, basic education (including broadband coverage) and health flagship projects. It had enjoyed a steady income growth, from government and also from other grants. Members asked how CSIR would ensure innovation as well as the marketing of the research, pointing to efforts in other countries, enquired about the challenges it faced, and particularly wanted to know how sanitation issues at primary schools were being addressed.

Meeting report

National Research Foundation briefing
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Chief Executive Officer, National Research Foundation, gave some background on the National Research Foundation (NRF), stating that it had been established through an Act of Parliament, as a government entity, and was mandated to provide funding for research in Higher Education Institutions. It provided necessary research facilities in the country to advance international competitiveness in the field of research. He noted the position of South Africa in relation to other countries, and its competitiveness in the research field, and noted that the Department of Science and Technology (DST or the Department) would need to put a substantial amount of investment into research for better outcomes. It was vital that the Ministry continue to support the NRF to reach its goals.

Dr van Jaarsveld mentioned that the core competencies of National Research Foundation were specialised research capacity, providing research platforms, international research collaboration, grants for science and technology and management expertise. Through these objectives, it was promoting the importance of science in growing the people and benefiting society.

Dr Jaarsveld conceded, with reference to the performance report slides of the presentation (see attached document) that there had been some difficulties with the feasible targets, hence much hard work and investment would be needed in future. He added that the National Research Foundation formed part of the 10-year Innovation Plan of the Department of Science and Technology, and would thus continue to play its role in ensuring that their mandate is fulfilled in this regard

Dr van Jaarsveld reiterated that there had been investment in the NRF, which had resulted in positive growth, which took different forms, including allocation of funding for specific purposes. The spending in the sphere of Higher Education as increasing, and he mentioned that cost containment measures were being put in place by National Treasury, and both the DST and NRF had been told to try to achieve savings.

Dr van Jaarsveld briefly explained these four programmes under which the NRF’s work was done, and which were regarded as priority areas for it. Programme 1: Corporate aimed to maximize the management capacity and capability of the NRF. Programme 2: Science Engagement focused on offering the Mzansi for Science campaign, to promote science awareness across the whole country, and particularly to encourage and boost the numbers of students considering science as a career option. This should have incredible impact in South Africa. He particularly noted that the 50th Anniversary of the National Science Olympiad took place on 10 July 2014. National Science week would be taking place in the next month.

He also specifically mentioned Regional Integrated Science and Assessments Programme (RISA) , whose objective was to encourage diversity in the allocation of funding and grants, to boost of postgraduate investment and to prepare the next generation of researchers. The DST would also continue to support established researchers who would then be able to train the next generation of researchers, and this ought to elevate the work of the NRF. He emphasised the importance of a flow of new talent in the system.

Dr van Jaarsveld said that the NRF had infrastructural investment projects in the areas of nuclear, biodiversity, environment and conservation science. He noted that a particular achievement was that South Africa was the second largest producer of radio isotope worldwide.

He noted that in the astro-Geosciences, NRF had placed much investment in astronomy, conversion of dishes. The funding of an optical telescope was being pursued, as well as a partnership with SA Gravity Wave.

Dr van Jaarsveld stated that attention was being paid to the transformation of the research environment. The South African Research Chairs Programme and Centres of Excellence were key projects for the organization. In regard to the allocation of the bursaries, NRF would look at need and merit, but also would balance these carefully against the outcomes of its investment. The launch of a Research Career Advancement Fellowship would offer a wide intake of students into knowledge production.

Dr van Jaarsveld set out some of the challenges facing the NRF. These included the growth of the organization, funding for human capital development and the need to refocus national resources on respective science plans. He said that the opportunities Dr van Jaarsveld said that the opportunities for the National Research Foundation would be maximised if a larger part of South Africa’s GDP investment was directed at ensuring global competitiveness in research, and towards other long-term strategies, such as lease agreements supporting research projects, to mention a few. He concluded his presentation by calling for incremental growth in funding and emphasised the need for the organisation to embark on a consultation process with the Higher Education sector, when drafting new strategic plans.

Dr Lotriet (DA), who stated that she had been a past National Research Foundation fund recipient, asked about the number of applications and the funds given. Dr Lotriet thought there should be a call on the private sector also to fund the National Research Foundation, as this should not be the government’s burden only.

Dr van Jaarsveld replied that universities in South Africa had good reputations, but each of them was different, and some were more research intensive than others, so their capacities must be maximized. Growing the capacity of all of them was important and it was an ongoing process.

Dr Gansen Pillay, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, National Research Foundation, also stressed the importance of funding, saying that there was high demand and the influence of available funding was limited, hence the call to increase the numbers and value of bursaries in the future. He also added that the temptation for students to leave the university system for higher pay outside the academic environment was strong, and there was a need to find ways to retain the students in the system.

Ms L Maseko (ANC) noted mention of Vision 2015 by National Research Foundation, and asked how far NRF was in seeing these objectives attained. She asked if the system of IPS was still going to be implemented. She also enquired whether it was not possible to perhaps extend the National Science Week, into a month.

Ms Beverley Damonse, Group Executive: Science Advancement, NRF, responded that the impact of the National Science Week, on learners, teachers and the public at large, should not be taken for granted. Various programmes supporting that did carry on throughout the year, so positive outcomes were evident from this programme.

Ms Maseko asked if the NRF was currently addressing a smooth transition of the new board, and wanted to know if continuity was being addressed.
Dr van Jaarsveld responded that induction, orientation and handover processes for the new board would be conducted.

The Chairperson mentioned that the National Research Foundation served not only South Africans but also the neighboring countries, especially given its infrastructure, and he commented that it would be useful to see how this was being given effect to in the future. He asked that the NRF keep in contact with the Committee, and that it should continue to pursue its aims, in order to make a difference in achieving the goals of the Department of Science and Technology.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research 2014 Annual Performance Plan briefing
Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, Chief Executive Officer, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, presented an extensive report to the Committee. Firstly, he set out the mandates of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) over the past years, and its plans for the future. The report outlined the work being done by the organisation in elevating the role of science in South Africa. Significant work had been achieved by the CSIR in ensuring positive research outcomes in science and technology, which impacted upon the economy. Overall its research aimed to make a positive contribution to the lives of people in South Africa. CSIR had been in existence for 69 years old in 2014, and had produced 301 doctorates during this time.

The CSIR interacted with other public research institution who shared similar mandates, to maximise the impact of the work being done in South Africa. The research impact areas of the organisation included core technologies, in materials science and modeling science.

Amongst priority areas for the CSIR was a recognition that it must constantly strive for good governance, such as maintaining an unqualified audit, risk management and fraud prevention, maintain the highest standards of corporate governance and corporate citizenship.
Mr Raynold Zondo, Executive Director, CSIR, stressed the importance of creating a conducive environment for employees that allowed them to work hard, whilst their well-being was being taken care of. This formed part of the target of building and transforming human capital.

Dr Sibisi informed the Committee that the CSIR had enjoyed a steady income growth, from government and also from other grants.

Dr Rachel Chikwamba, Group Executive: Strategic Alliances and Communication, CSIR, said that the performance of the CSIR in the international context was satisfactory, and highlighted significant areas where it had made some impact. These included:
- Work on Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS), particularly using plants as sources of medicine, particularly bringing them into laboratories, to advance the development of medicine in South Africa, and benefit sharing.
- The Health flagship aimed for integrated projects that could make a bigger impact, creating a platform for improvement of primary health care in various communities, where the work of the CSIR included data collection, management and analysis.
- Supporting State-Owned Companies, such as Transnet, in improving their production operations, engineering supply chain and doing feasibility studies
- Infrastructure development flagship, offering broader support to communications and higher education sectors, which included broadband coverage.
- Economic and Social impact achieved through interventions in basic education, providing technology to enhance the skills of the learners. A Mxit application that allowed learners to get answers to their curriculum content on Mathematics was one of the CSIR innovations.
The Chairperson asked how CSIR ensured that innovation was made possible, and how the results of the research were marketed to ensure economic viability. He noted that the marketing of Chinese innovations was very good, whereas Germany, who had very good innovations, lacked the marketing skills.  He asked how South Africa rated as far as the marketing of innovations fared, as well as the protection of the intellectual copyright of South African innovations. He asked what CSIR’s connection was with Sasol innovations and he asked that a time be set aside so that the Committee could be brought up to speed with the status of important projects CSIR was involved with.

Dr Sibisi said the scientific base of the South African economy was not as strong as it European and highly developed counterparts. There was a whole system of companies like Siemens and others that would employ people with science degrees and engineers from universities and Sasol which did a lot of research in fields related to chemistry and mechanical engineering. There was some focus on the mining industry, but rather little when it came to knowledge-based industries which focused on cutting edge expertise in specialised areas like the electronics industry which was part of the challenge.

A CSIR official said theft of industrial secrets was a reality with high stakes and required a lot of money.  The CSIR did not have the financial resources that were often required, but took great care to protect South African innovations through compliance to regulatory bodies.  Suspected infringement warranted assistance by the Department of Trade and industry (DTI as was the case with “Rooibos” as a South African trademark and “Imbube”, the South African song used in the Lion King movie and stage productions.  There was no full proof marketing or commercialising model, but the CSIR had a number of relationships with investors and the Industrial Development Cooperation (IDC) for different marketing strategies. 

Ms J Terblanche (DA) referred to the energy component and asked what the possible health implications were for South Africans in communities built underneath Eskom power lines.  The Cofimvaba Schools District Technology Project was visited last year to assess the electrician and agricultural projects, but sanitation at the schools was non-existent.  It was very disappointing, because the students were using tablets and there was a clinic in mint condition just down the road from the school.  She asked whether the conditions had been improved, because the project was a wonderful opportunity, but should not be conducted under such poor sanitation conditions.

Dr Sibisi said the aim of the Cofimvaba Schools District Technology Project was to identify initiatives to use technology-led innovations to improve teaching and learning in rural schools.  Research into the possible health impacts of Eskom power lines was not part of the mandate of the programme, and at this point, only the integrity of the Eskom transition lines were questioned.

Dr Chikwamba said that two weeks prior two new toilets had been commissioned for the school and the DST was working on an integrated approach that involved agriculture and energy to complement the ICT aspect of the intervention.

Ms Maseko said CSIR was well known for its significant research contribution in South Africa, why an innovative system that allowed Government systems and departments to correlate information of citizens to curb corruption and the abuse of Government resources.  She asked whether CSIR had given consideration to a possible role in parliamentary research, especially on the effectiveness of Parliament’s oversight role. Science and technology was a priority for this new Government in shaping a progressive future for South Africa.  She referred to the recent Bloemhof water contamination incident, and asked whether CSIR collaborated with the Department of Water and Sanitation to address such issues.  South African National Defense Force (SANDF) engineers currently based in Kroonstad were available to assist with water purification for free. She asked whether CSIR had been looking into those engineers as a resource to assist with water contamination concerns.

Ms Maseko said that Science and Technology was the backbone of innovation and research and the Committee was an advocate of budget increases to increase support and to complement the National Development Plan (NDP).  She asked whether CSIR was heading any programmes to improve and modernise indigenous knowledge or programmes to counteract cable theft on the rails. 

Dr Sibisi said that through the DST, the CSIR was rolling out a broadband network which would enable South African universities to be connected in research work and it was a central infrastructure that was the key to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).  CSIR was working on technology that would test water and provided results in real time that could be applied across the country.

Mr Mathale asked for clarification on how the work of CSIR and the National Research Foundation (NRF) overlapped.

Dr Sibisi said that NRF did not do research, but rather promoted and supported research through funding, human resource development and the provision of the necessary facilities.  CSIR tried to keep informed with current research undertaken at different institutions as not to duplicate any work already undertaken.

Dr Lotriet asked what the major challenge of the CSIR was.

Dr Sibisi responded that young people needed a schooling system that sufficiently prepared them for University, but it remained a challenge. It was important for students to be inspired to see where they could deploy their expertise, and the scientific base of South Africa needed to grow significantly in this regard. 

The meeting was adjourned for lunch and would be continued later.


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