Human Capital Development: briefing by Department of Science and Technology

NCOP Public Enterprises and Communication

18 March 2015
Chairperson: Ms E Prins (ANC, Western Cape)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) gave a presentation on Human Capital Development (HCD) initiatives in the DST and the broader science sector.  There were a number of systemic challenges, which included low supervisory capacity to improve postgraduate completion rates, low bursary amounts offered, which meant that many students could not afford to progress to postgraduate level, poor demographic representation, in race and gender, at established researcher level, and the low figure allocated to research and development, only 0.8% of GDP. Many of the current lecturers in the system did not see the need to pursue further research. Human Capital Development programmes were being pursued by government, through larger allocations, and this had resulted in better representation of blacks and women.  Although DST had invested in post-doctoral fellowship programmes this had not led to significant growth in numbers, although it had allowed for more money to be allocated to each grant. Again, proportional representation was not where it should be, except that there was growth in the number of white women scientists, but more careful attention was needed to improve black participation. DST also made interventions into  South African Chairs of Research and Centres of Excellence, which were both expanding the supervisory capacity. Industry was supporting several Chairs of Research, and this was improving the race and gender equality patterns. In addition, the sector was helping to provide bursaries, support to researchers, and programmes that set aside 30% of budget specifically to develop human capital. These included industry R&D, ICT skills development and R&D in the Green Economy. Many of the R&D efforts would be aligned to DST programmes, which were designed to identify and grow competitiveness in existing areas and to facilitate the development of targeted industries with growth potential, in a number of areas. Masters and Doctoral bursaries were issued here. Generic support was offered through the Science, Engineering & Technology Industry Internship Programme (SETIIP), targeted at Universities of Technology. Science promotion and engagement at lower levels was achieved through National Science Week, Olympiads and Festivals. DST stressed the need to track demographics and completion rates, encourage more academics to become research-active,
put more resources to growing the established researcher initiatives and increase the values of average grants.

Members appreciated the presentation. They wondered if money was the main inhibitor to poor enrolment of black students, but the DST pointed to a number of other factors and confirmed that it was studying demographics. Members asked if the DST was participating in Edu-Fairs and careers days. They asked about retention plans, numbers of researchers entering and leaving the country. They asked if the DST had considered or was using mobile laboratories, pointing out that one of the main problems hindering some institutions was infrastructure. They cited the continuing criticism that university students would graduate without being prepared for the market-place. The Department was asked to provide further information on patent applications and lodgment.  

Meeting report

Chairperson's opening remarks

The Chairperson welcomed delegates from the Department of Science and Technology (DST or the Department) and Members, noting apologies and said that their absence was due to the fact that another urgent meeting coincided with this one.

DST Human Capital Development Initiative Presentation
Dr Thomas Auf Der Heyde, Deputy Director General: Research, Development and Support, Department of Science and Technology, noted the apologies of the Minister and Director both of whom were abroad, the Minister in Brazil for a BRICS meeting and the Director General in Geneva for another meeting.

Dr Auf der Heyde noted some of the systemic challenges in human capital development (HCD) in the science sector. These included:

- Supervisory capacity to improve postgraduate completion rates (38.6% of academic staff with PhDs);was very poor and was in need of attention and improvement in order to improve postgraduate completion rates
- The DST had low bursary values resulting in low progression ratios (from Bachelors to Honours to Masters to PhD) and high demographic drop-off. A large number of students are not making it to postgraduate level
- Poor demographic representation at established researcher levels, in terms of both race and gender representation
- Small science system (currently producing 34 PhDs per million population. The amounts allocated to research and development (R&D) as percentage of GDP were less than 0.8%)
- The challenge of the “silent majority”, which he explained were lecturers who did not see themselves as researchers or did not have the desire to pursue that avenue. He explained that the Department of Science and Technology was currently looking into why these lecturers had this attitude.

He described the HCD Programmes. In respect of the postgraduate students, he noted that over the past five years, government had supported at least 34 030 postgraduate students (5 131 in 2009/10 rising to 9 771 in 2013/14), more than doubling the financial investments from R194.77 million to R541.18 million  during this period. There had been significant improvements in black representation over this period. The targets for proportional representation of women and men were close to being reached at masters and doctoral levels.

In relation to Emerging Researchers (Postdoctoral Fellowship Programmes and Thuthuka) he noted that although the DST had made significant investments in this category, it had not led to significant growth in numbers of supported researchers, but had achieved the growth of the average grant. A significant majority of early career academics remained dormant with respect to research. There had been consistent growth  in the proportion of white women, while proportional representation for blacks and black women fluctuated. He noted that the DST would have to pay careful attention to the implementation of the programmes in order to improve black (particularly black women) participation.

The third stream was the Established Researchers (South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) and Centres of Excellence (CoE) Programme. Here, the DST interventions  by way of CoEs and SARChI were yielding results, in terms of the expansion of the supervisory capacity of the science system. Several organisations were sponsoring Chairs of Research outside the DST/NRF system and universities were adding full professors trying to emulate the SARChI example. The initiatives were gradually succeeding in improving the race and gender inequity among the students supervised.           Additional investments in these initiatives would be essential to further expand the system, while concomitantly improving student representation.

Dr Auf der Heyde then described the sector-specific HCD interventions. Generic HCD interventions were applicable across all sector-specific programmes. These included bursaries, emerging researcher support, established researcher support, SARChI chairs, CoEs. There were also sector-specific programmes formulating HCD interventions and targets, all of which aimed to set aside 30% of budget to HCD.

Examples of these were:
- Research and Development-led (R&D-led) industry development
- Information and Communication Technology skills development
- Green Economy Research and Development.

HCD took place in R&D -led industry development in two ways. Firstly, HCD would be aligned with DST sector-specific R&D programmes. These aimed to identify, grow and sustain niche high-potential STI capabilities that improved the competitiveness of existing and emerging economic sectors and that also facilitated the development of targeted industries with growth potential in aerospace, advanced manufacturing, chemicals, mining, advanced metals and ICTs. Projects under this portfolio aimed at 30% investment in Human Capital. These projects issued Masters and Doctoral bursaries.

Secondly, there would also be generic support, through the Science, Engineering & Technology Industry Internship Programme (SETIIP). This was mainly targeted at improving University of Technology students to complete their P1 & P2 training, and providing industry experience in B-Tech, M-Tech, and also D-tech in a small percentage of cases

Science promotion and engagement was achieved through National Science Week, Olympiads and Festivals.

He concluded that the system was growing and transforming in terms of human capital. However, it was necessary to have more funds  invested in the post-graduate category. At the same time, there would have to be tighter monitoring of demographics and completion rates (the demographic drop-off described earlier). In addition, graduated PhDs needed to be tracked to establish a level of retention in the system.

Academics must become more research-active as emerging researchers, and more resources were required to grow the established researcher initiatives and increase the values of average grants. He pointed out that in order to reach the National Development Plan targets, there would have to be a significant increase in the level of investment.

Discussion

The Chairperson asked if money was the only factor contributing to the poor enrolment of black students, or if there were other reasons also. She encouraged the Department to look further into other challenges surrounding demographics.

Dr Auf der Heyde explained that the DST had undertaken a study on improving the enrolment of black students, which showed that there are a number of problems around this issue. Financial problems were a major factor in determining the number of students who enrolled, but not the only factor, as this was a complex problem. Other factors included the students’ history and background, the reputation of the university, the field of study in which the student was interested, and the relationship between the students and staff. DST was aware that these issues needed to be addressed but they were beyond the DST’s capacity alone and it could only help in the areas of financial and research support.

Mr A Singh (ANC, KwaZulu Natal) was very impressed by the training opportunities provided by the Department for postgraduate students, and commended DST on this endeavour. He  asked whether the Department was using EduFairs, run in high schools for Grades 8 to 10 learners, as an avenue to influence students to take subjects such as science and mathematics or to stir up interest in those subjects. He also asked if the Department had a retention plan, or any way of ensuring that the students that the country invested in did not leave the country without putting their skills back and contributing to the country’s development.

Dr Auf der Heyde explained that the DST issued career booklets to schools and science centres who partnered with schools on career advice. He explained that although he was aware that these booklets were issued to schools, he was not sure whether the DST participated in high school EduFairs. DST was aware that there was only so much that it could do; again, there were a number of factors that influenced a student’s career and subject choices.

Dr Auf der Heyde noted the comments on retention, but said DST was aware that science is a global enterprise and South African scientists had better opportunities abroad, being exposed to opportunities this country could not offer. DST accepted that sometimes it was better to let the scientists go abroad, expand their knowledge and horizons and then encourage them to come back and impart that knowledge and experience locally. This led to the question of what was being done to try to keep them here in the first place, and what was being done to attract researchers to South Africa. DST was trying to attract researchers to South Africa. It had been successful in doing this, through its flagship projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project, which was focused on building the biggest telescope in the world. He explained that South Africa needed to focus on establishing flagship projects because they were the ones that attracted researchers to the country, which was particularly important. He argued that South Africa needed to focus on becoming more globally interesting, attractive and competitive.

Dr Auf der Heyde added that the DST was also measuring whether it was importing or exporting intellectual capital, and found that in fact the number of researchers leaving the country balanced the number of researchers coming into the country, so there was no intellectual capital being lost. However, the DST still wanted to attract more researchers. He explained that he could not give the number of researchers who left the country because some of them left for research, training or studies and came back, a common phenomenon. However, the point was that the country was, overall, importing as much intellectual capital as it was exporting, and that the number of international publishers here matched the number of South African publishers abroad, so the country was in a healthy state and had nothing to worry about.

Ms B Masango (DA, Gauteng) asked whether there was an indication of the number of students who had been trained who were leaving the country. She asked how the Science Expositions mentioned in the presentation were going, and whether they were effective in what they wanted to achieve. She noted the concern by Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, that university education was purely academic and lacked practical experience, and she asked if there was a way to address this concern and link it to the human capital development programme the DST was running. She also asked how the DST was establishing, promoting or nurturing an interest in students for subjects such as science, mathematics and technology, especially those students from rural areas whose  backgrounds and upbringing determined their course of action. She asked what the partnership with the private sector had been. She sought clarity on whether the grant values stated in the presentation were grants available for students, or the number of grants sought  by students. She asked whether the Department would deal with infrastructure problems as well, noting that many universities could not attract or retain potential science students because of their poor infrastructure and resources. She also asked who were the interns. Finally, she asked how the DST managed to get support and so much money from National Treasury.

Dr Auf der Heyde firstly clarified that the grant values stated represented the number of students actually awarded with these grants. National Treasury realised the need for and importance of education and skills development, to promote economic growth and alleviate poverty and unemployment, so it was in favour of supporting postgraduate development. He explained that all the DST had to do was show National Treasury the statistics, in order to convince it of the value and to persuade it that the allocations would be used as an investment in growing the economy of the country in the long run.

He conceded that other departments, universities and colleges were also battling with the question of whether students were being prepared for the marketplace. The DST recognised the need to create better connection and integration between public and private sectors, like some European countries were doing. DST wanted to re-establish this integration and was doing this by supporting research partnerships between public research institutions and the private sector, where students could go for training and practical experience through those partnerships.

Dr Auf der Heyde explained that the Research Chairs and Centres of Excellence were mainly supported and funded by the private sector and international sponsors. He explained that the DST was trying to integrate with the private sector from a knowledge point of view and resource point of view. There were a number of mining companies that supported some of the programmes of the DST and would take students for research experience and training. He stressed that the private sector supported the DST in a number of different areas, but the DST was aware of the need to build even closer relationships with the private sector in relation to research and development. DST was aware that the relationship with the private sector was not as strong as it should be, knew some of the reasons behind this and was working on rectifying the problem.

Dr Auf der Heyde explained that, in terms of infrastructure, the government had recognised the need to invest in infrastructure, especially Research and Development Infrastructure, and as a result the Department has grown infrastructure development in some places, with the support of National Treasury.

Mr C Smit (DA, Limpopo) suggested that mobile laboratories be established in rural areas. He stated that the problem with secondary schools, especially in rural areas, was that they lacked the proper equipment, resources and infrastructure for them to engage with or practise science. He suggested that the DST stimulate and nurture student potential at rural schools by establishing mobile laboratories and teams.

Dr Auf der Heyde explained that the DST did support mobile laboratories but their role was really to demonstrate to schools and provincial departments the new technology and approaches that could improve the learners’ and teachers’ educational experiences. If the school was interested in the methods the Department had demonstrated, the DST would assist with the methodology for rollout. He explained that the DST was establishing a science centre in one rural community, with the aim of demonstrating what exactly that centre could do, and to demonstrate what could be done through innovation, and by encouraging engagement and innovation in the communities themselves. He explained that providing mobile laboratories and teams beyond that was out of DST’s capacity and mandate.

Ms E Prins (ANC, Western Cape) asked how many applications for patents had been made in the past and current financial year. She also wanted to know further details of youth engagement.

Dr Auf der Heyde said he would have to revert to the Committee on that point, he did not have the information currently with him.

Mr Bheki Hadebe, Assistant to Deputy Director General: Research Development and Support, DST, explained that the DST did have data from 2013 indicating the number of patents lodged. However, this was slightly skewed because the number fluctuated according to where the patent applications were lodged, and destination points for two of them were unknown at the moment. He confirmed that the information would be clarified and sent through to the Committee.

Mr Hadebe also made a comment on public and private sector partnerships. He noted that the National Research Foundation and the Department of Trade and Industry were implementing a programme that involved researchers from universities collaborating with industry partners on problems that affected industries directly. He explained that about R350 million per year was put into this project, and it was reaping the necessary results and benefits.

The Chairperson thanked the DST for the effort put into this most useful presentation.

Dr Auf der Heyde thanked the Committee, in turn, for hosting the meeting and assured the Committee of the DST's willingness to help, support or facilitate the Committee.

Adoption of minutes
This agenda item was postponed, as the Committee did not have a quorum present.

The meeting was adjourned.

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