Paleosciences Research and Development: briefing by Department of Science & Technology

Science and Technology

10 June 2015
Chairperson: Dr B Goqwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) presented a briefing on its recent research into the paleosciences. This research, which includes scanning and dating fossils, can provide important information on humankind’s past. The DST presented its goals for the paleosciences programme and referred to areas of interdepartmental partnership on the subject. The DST emphasised that paleosciences research has a racial and social impact in explaining how humans are more alike than they are different. Scientific research shows that 99% of all humans are genetically alike. The types of machines the DST uses to analyse fossils were described.

Members expressed their interest in the paleosciences programme. They supported further projects to increase public awareness of the paleosciences and noted the importance of engaging museums, tourists, and schools in this effort. Members asked about the possibility of building more sophisticated scanning machines in Africa to help the continent’s paleoscientific research. DST noted that there was not enough demand in South Africa for large machines such as the synchrotron machine, to justify building one here. DST agreed that working with museums, tourist initiatives, and schools can raise public awareness of paleosciences.

Meeting report

Paleosciences Research and Development: briefing by Department of Science & Technology
Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director General (DDG): Research, Development, and Support at the Department of Science and Technology (DST) was accompanied by Dr Yonah Seleti, Chief Director: Science Missions and Ms Dipuo Kgotleng, Deputy Director: Science Platform. Dr Auf Der Heyde noted that Dr Seleti would be making the presentation. Dr Auf Der Heyde agreed with the Chairperson's introductory comment that the paleosciences look at humankind’s history.

Dr Yonah Seleti, Chief Director: Science Missions, presented an overview of the Department’s paleo research programme, saying DST aims to provide a holistic approach to the development of paleosciences in South Africa. The Department wants to empower South African researchers and develop the economic potential in the paleosciences. Its strategy rests on the following five specific goals:
- Create public awareness of the paleosciences
- Develop human capital in the paleosciences through supporting universities
- Empowering museums to do research
- Maintain national heritage agencies
- Develop “paleo-tourism”.

The DST will use an implementation plan to achieve its goals. (Slide 7). The DST will work with the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), and the Department of Tourism (Tourism). Dr Auf Der Heyde emphasised that this partnership was a work in progress.

Specific “performance indicators” will show the progress of the DST’s goals. These performance indicators included increasing the number of travelling exhibitions at museums, increasing developing new research posts at universities, and increasing the number of paleosciences sites used as tourist areas. (Slides 8-9).  

Dr Seleti then reported on the Department’s progress towards these goals. First, the Department has established a Centre of Excellence on Paleosciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2013. The Centre is fully functional, with modern equipment used to date fossils. He suggested that the Committee might want to take a trip to view the Centre.

Secondly, the number of research projects the DST supports has increased from fifteen reports in 2008-9 to 52 reports in 2013-14 (Slide 12). These statistics show that the department is putting investments in the right place.

Third, the Department has increased the bursary support for postgraduates. It has also created a job programme for unskilled personnel.

Dr Seleti also mentioned that the DST supported the installation of a Microfocus X-ray Computed Tornography scanner (“CT scanner”) at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2012. The machine is very sophisticated and can X-ray rocks to detect fossils.

Dr Auf Der Heyde interrupted to tell the Committee about the importance of the CT scanner. When a rock has a fossil inside it, traditional methods required the scientist to chip away at the rock. But today, CT scanners can simply scan the rock without damaging the fossil inside. Another machine is the synchrotron machine, which gives more detailed information than the CT machine. South Africa has CT scanners, but no synchrotron machines. Therefore, South Africa entered into an agreement with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France in 2013. South Africa pays an annual fee to the facility, and, in turn, South African scientists can scan their items in the synchrotron machine in France.

Dr Seleti mentioned the importance of engaging youth on these projects.

Dr Auf Der Heyde stated that these scans produce a lot of data that can be handled by cyberinfrastructure. The Committee was introduced to cyberinfrastructure programs the previous week.

Dr Seleti continued that the DST supports the nation’s scientific museums. Many museums are the responsibility of the DAC, not the DST, but the DST has an interest in preserving national heritage and culture. The DST works with other departments to ensure the museums can maintain their collections. The DST may make a bid in future to the National Treasury because developing museum infrastructure is expensive. The DST has interacted internationally to increase scientific development. The Department has engaged with China on paleosciences research. The DST is also building relationships within Africa, especially with Tanzania.

Dr Seleti mentioned a specific statistic that the DST was using for social progress. Scientific research shows that 99% of all humans are genetically alike. The “99% Campaign” presents this information and has been pitched to FIFA and other groups to reduce racism.

Dr Seleti then reviewed the progress of the DST on its performance indicators (Slides 19-23). The Department has made serious strides in its goals. For example, it has outperformed its targets in supporting paleosciences bursaries at universities. Only four out of 15 goals required further progress. The DST needs further progress in developing new research posts for museums (Slide 20.)

Dr Auf Der Heyde mentioned the DST’s outreach programmes to schools. He asked Ms Kgotleng to present this because it is her particular area of expertise.

Ms Dipuo Kgotleng, Deputy Director: Science Platform, stated that the DST has distributed booklets to schools and small museums in conjunction with the Department of Tourism. The Department works with a non-profit organisation called the Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST) to raise awareness on paleosciences. One PAST project focused on the scientific basis of skin colour differences and was held in Soweto. (Slide 25). These projects are important because they show society how similar human beings of all races are.

Dr Seleti concluded that DST has made sufficient progress. There are some areas for improvement, but DST is satisfied it can meet these targets in future years. The DST wants to use the paleosciences to develop multidisciplinary excellence in cultural, marine, and other fields. The DST appreciates increased support so they can maintain research training and infrastructure. Increased partnerships with museums will require additional political muscle. The DST will also continue its partnership with international organisations on developing research.

Dr Auf Der Heyde concluded that the human species has its origins in Southern Africa. Stones in caves also suggest that conceptual thinking originated in southern Africa. Ancient humans etched geometric patterns into stone. Therefore, the paleosciences have a huge importance not only to science, but to South African national heritage.

The Chairperson noted that research in the paleosciences is important because it helps society understand where it came from. He mentioned that these developments in science were important because it allowed citizens to be independent thinkers. The DST research can change attitudes on race and bring out bonds between people

The Chairperson mentioned that if elected officials understand the importance of paleoscientific research, they will vote for increased funding for it. He noted the DST presentation could inform many MPs about the importance of the paleosciences.

Ms L Maseko (ANC) was concerned that the Cradle of Humankind was not mentioned in the presentation. She also asked about the DST’s partnerships with other departments. When the DST completes its part on the paleosciences project, does DST give the information to the DAC and to Tourism? In addition, which department funds more work: the DST or the DAC?

The Chairperson echoed Ms Maseko’s point on the Cradle of Humankind. He then called on Dr A Lotriet (DA), who is interested in paleontology.

Dr Lotriet raised a number of questions. First, she was concerned about an overlap between the DST and the DAC. She used to work with the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture and said that the state of museums is “not what it should be.” DST was doing “wonderful work” but expressed concern that this progress will not be maintained for future generations. She suggested a joint meeting with the DAC to address concerns about museum maintenance.

Second, Dr Lotriet asked why there was no synchrotron facility in South Africa. Africa is the only continent without a synchrotron machine. Finally, she expressed concern that South Africa was not doing enough to capitalise on the tourism available from its paleosciences research. She acknowledged that tourism was not the purview of the DST, but suggested to the Chairperson that this become a focus to the Committee.

Finally, Dr Lotriet asked what percentage does synchrotron research comprise of the entire DST budget. She was concerned that this research was underfunded.

The Chairperson appreciated that members like Dr Lotriet were interested in the DST’s research.

Mr N Koornhof (ANC) said that he believed many departments were “sinking deeper into the silo approach” by only looking after their own interests. He asked what it would cost to have a synchrotron machine in South Africa. He asked if South African legislation is up to speed in protecting national fossils.

The Chairperson agreed with Mr Koornhof that, indeed, more people should be impassioned about this research.

Ms Maseko added that it was important to kindle more scientific interest at earlier ages.

The Chairperson reiterated the importance of the paleosciences in helping us understand humankind. He requested that the delegation address the members’ questions.

Dr Auf Der Heyde thanked the members for their comments and said it was true that the paleosciences can help us understand humankind.

On sharing work with other departments, Dr Auf Der Heyde said that the need for the DST to work with other departments is unsurprising. The sciences are so overarching that they often overlap with environmental, technological, and other areas. He mentioned that these interdepartmental partnerships are helpful, but are also challenging. Other departments may not be ready to act when the DST is, and vice versa.

He said the DST has a cordial relationship with National Treasury. The DST has not recently approached the Treasury for new injections of money, but the DST has been able to inject R400 million into human capital development. On the whole, Treasury is receptive to DST requests, but does have to balance the budget.

Dr Auf Der Heyde referred to the questions about establishing a synchrotron facility in South Africa. This is not a feasible goal for the foreseeable future. The synchrotron machine in Europe is a huge and is a multilateral undertaking. It is not just a matter of buying one piece of equipment, but is also a matter of maintaining that equipment. In addition, the need for a synchrotron machine in South Africa is relatively low. South Africa’s use of the synchrotron machine in Europe is at a good level. South African scientists have sufficient access to that machine so it does not justify buying one.

Ms Maseko stated that establishing a synchrotron machine may be helpful to Africa because, in her understanding, other African countries also have to pay sums to use synchrotron machines in Europe. It might be a possibility to have an African synchrotron machine to save these costs.

Dr Auf Der Heyde thanked Ms Maseko for this observation. The DST is engaged in the debate about an African synchrotron machine, but he was speaking to what was most feasible.

Dr Auf Der Heyde noted that there is an ambitious plan to develop paleotourism sites with the Department of Tourism. This will take time, due to present financial circumstances.

The DST’s annual budget is on paleosciences is R25 million. The sums spent for using the European synchrotron equipment is R10 million. The total budget is therefore R20-30 million per year. He agreed that not enough money is being spent on the paleosciences in South Africa.

Dr Seleti responded to Ms Maseko’s concern about the Cradle of Humankind. The delegation wanted to give a large-scale, “high level” approach to Committee; so did not include the Cradle of Humankind in the presentation. DST is exploring linking the paleosciences to indigenous affairs and environmental matters. An exhibition in Shanghai has also highlighted paleosciences research. On interdepartmental matters, he stated that the DAC funds heritage sites, while the DST funds research.

The DST has also started discussions with the DAC and the Department of Tourism to increase scientific tourism. Work has started with DAC and with Tourism. The DST wants to keep to its mandate and not overstep into other departments’ duties.

Ms Kgotleng responded to the concern about legislation for paleosciences, saying sufficient legislation on paleosciences exists, but it needs to be enforced more strongly.

Dr Seleti commented further on the need for legislation enforcement. He agreed with the members that a joint sitting with other committees would help to highlight social cohesion.

Dr Lotriet asked whether the DST is looking at astropaleontological research.

Dr Seleti responded that there is ongoing work linking astronomy and indigenous knowledge. The DST will continue this research. He himself is particularly interested in promoting paleosciences and astronomy.

The Chairperson thanked Dr Auf Der Heyde. He stated that Members were passionate about this research. He stressed the importance of continuing research in the sciences for South African society. South Africa is playing in a global field and must compete on a scientific level. He hoped that the Members’ passion on this issue would influence other departments to increase scientific research. He hoped members would do what they could to increase Parliament’s awareness of the paleosciences. The Committee continues to support the DST and its research.

Meeting adjourned.

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