The Department of Science and Technology (DST) presented its fourth quarter performance and financial report to the Portfolio Committee, noting its commitment to pursue a common set of social and economic goals and objectives through the National System of Innovation (NSI) to promote change. During this period, from January to 31 March 2016, 53 (87%) of the 61 planned output targets had been completed successfully.
One of the highlights in the field of technology innovation had been the DST’s support for various demonstration pilots to test technologies developed at the three Centres of Competences (CoC). The Minister had launched two functional prototypes providing clean energy alternatives in the mining sector, but with a broader application, at Impala Platinum Refinery in Springs, and 35 diesel/electronic forklifts would be replaced with the new and improved hydrogen fuel.
In the area of international cooperation and resources, the DST had entered into an agreement with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), called ‘The Production of Biofuels Using Algal Biomass’. The objective was to develop a cost effective process for the production of biofuels from microalgae as a step towards commercialization and the development of a new energy industry, while also supporting human capital development through the training of SA post-graduate students participating in the project.
In the research, development and support programme, 946 graduates and students had been placed in science, engineering, technology and innovation (SETI) institutions during the fourth quarter. With its socio-economic innovation partnerships, the Department had targeted funding 15 Masters and Doctoral students in the fourth quarter, and 50 students had been funded.
The Department had spent 56.6% of its budget on research, development and support. During the fourth quarter, it had spent 99.6% of its budget.
The Committee wanted to know if the vacant positions in the DST had impacted the projects that had not been achieved. It wanted closure on the letter that had been written by the outgoing chairperson of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which was now making headlines in the news. The Committee also wanted to know the reason no bursaries had been offered by the Department during the fourth quarter, and asked about the progress on the newly developed anti-wrinkle product.
Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General (DG), Department of Science and Technology (DST), focused the report on the progress of each of the five DST’s programmes – administration; technology innovation; international cooperation and resources; research, development and support; and socio-economic partnerships.
Programme 1: Administration
This programme’s objective was to coordinate the identification, formulation and implementation of strategic initiatives and ensure that priorities of the DST and its entities were aligned to national priorities.
The DST had an annual target of four DST 2015/16 quarterly performance reports approved by the DG within 60 days after each quarter. The fourth quarter target was to have one of the four reports approved by the executive committee (Exco) within 60 days after each quarter. This target had been achieved. Suppliers had been paid within the targeted 30 days after date of invoice. A minimum of 92% of DST personnel submitting half-yearly and probation reviews on time by 31 March 2016 had been targeted, and the Department had achieved 97.5%. An annual target of having eight communication and media plans approved by the Exco and Minister's Management Meeting (MMM) by 31 March 2016 had been planned, two of these targeted to be approved in the fourth quarter. This goal had been achieved and six of these plans had been approved during the fourth quarter. The public participation programmes targeted to be conducted by 31 March 2016 had been achieved. The DST had also targeted having four media articles written to raise the DST’s public profile during the fourth quarter, and all four had been written by 31 March 2016. They contributed to the 12 article annual target, of which eight had already been written.
Programme 2: Technology Innovation
The purpose of this programme was to enable research and development in strategic and emerging focus areas to promote the realisation of commercial products, processes and services from research and development (R&D) outputs, through the implementation of enabling policy instruments.
Three of seven innovation-enabling programmes were implemented in the third quarter and the rest were targeted and successfully implemented during the fourth quarter. An annual target of 275 new disclosures reported by the publicly funded institutions had been set, with all to take place during the fourth quarter. The Department had received 208 disclosures during the quarter. The annual target of 118 knowledge products to be generated had been exceeded, with 162 knowledge products achieved during the period under review. The Department had targeted funding 382 post-graduate students through DST-funded initiatives during the fourth quarter, and 402 masters and doctorate students were supported.
One of the highlights had been the DST’s support for various demonstration pilots to test technologies developed at the three Centres of Competences (CoC). The Minister had launched two functional prototypes providing clean energy alternatives in the mining sector, but with a broader application, at Impala Platinum Refinery in Springs, and 35 diesel/electronic forklifts would be replaced with the new and improved hydrogen fuel.
Programme 3: International Cooperation and Resources
The aim of this programme was to strategically develop, promote and manage international relationships, opportunities and Science & Technology (S&T) agreements that strengthened the NSI and enabled an exchange of knowledge, capacity and resources between SA and its regional and international partners.
Three dedicated international exchanges to build or reinforce SA’s capacities in key science, technology and innovation (STI) domains had been specifically referenced in the DST strategic plan, undertaken with the support of international partners facilitated by the DST by 31 March 2016, had been planned to take place during the fourth quarter. The annual target was ten. However, all the ten of them had been achieved in the fourth quarter. Another fourth quarter target had been to create two African Union (AU) or Southern African Development Community (SADC) STI initiatives, including programmes, projects or governance frameworks, endorsed at AU or SADC ministerial level. This was to add to the other five that the Department planned to create before the fourth quarter, to make up a total of seven. However, more opportunities became available than expected, so the Department had created 13 AU or SADC initiatives.
An annual target had been set for four formally recorded decisions made in the governmental STI forums, such as multilateral organisations, with a direct bearing on resource allocation to support priorities of the government’s programme of action, following specific DST intervention by 31 March 2016. The Department had targeted recording one such decision in the fourth quarter but instead, six decisions had been made. Another annual target was occupying two leadership positions in international STI governance structures relevant to influencing resource allocation, to support the priorities of the government’s programme of action, following specific DST intervention by the end of the financial year. One position was planned to be occupied in the second quarter and the other was planned to be occupied in the fourth quarter. The Department had managed to occupy five leadership positions in the fourth quarter. South Africa’s standing in the international community had enabled access to more positions than anticipated.
The DST had entered into an agreement with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), called ‘The Production of Biofuels Using Algal Biomass’. The objective was to develop a cost effective process for the production of biofuels from microalgae as a step towards commercialization and the development of a new energy industry, while also supporting human capital development through the training of SA post-graduate students participating in the project.
Programme 4: Research Development and Support
The purpose of the programme was to provide an enabling environment for research and knowledge production that promoted development of basic sciences and priority science areas through science promotion, human capital development, and the provision of research support in pursuit of SA’s transition to a knowledge economy.
The DST had targeted having 900 graduates and students placed in DST-funded work preparation programmes in Science, Engineering, Technology and Innovation (SETI) institutions by 31 March 2016. 946 graduates and students had been placed in SETI institutions during the fourth quarter. The target had been achieved and exceeded by 5%. Most positions in workplace programmes had been allocated at the beginning of the financial year and the pool of applicants had been bigger than anticipated. An annual target of having one implementation plan for Multiwavelength Astronomy Strategy approved by Exco by the end of the financial year had been achieved. Eighty-four research infrastructure grants were awarded as per award letters in the fourth quarter, against a target of 60. A total of 7 158 (7 000 targeted) Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) accredited research articles were published by National Research Foundation (NRF)-funded researchers, as reflected in the NRF project reports.
Programme 5: Socio-Economic Innovation Partnerships
This programme enhanced the growth and development priorities of government through S&T-based innovation interventions and the development of strategic partnerships with other government departments, industry, research institutions and communities.
The annual targets were: four knowledge products on innovation for inclusive development published; five decision support interventions maintained and improved during the financial year, and 50 Masters’ and Doctoral students fully funded or co-funded in designated niche areas that support the green economy and sustainable development. In achieving these, four knowledge products on innovation for inclusive development were planned to be published in the last quarter of the 2015/16 financial year, and five had been published. Six decision-support interventions had been maintained and improved. The Department had targeted funding 15 Masters and Doctoral students in the fourth quarter, and 50 students had been funded.
The underperformance of five of the eight output targets that were not achieved was due to target formulation deficiencies, two of them were due to administration delays and the underperformance for one of them was due to process delays.
The largest share of budget (56.6%) had been assigned to Programme 4. Other budget allocations were 23% of the budget to Programme 5, 14.3% to Programme 2, 4.2% to Programme 1 and 1.6% to Programme 3. There had been a slight under-expenditure in all of these programmes. Total expenditure had been 99.6% of the R7 466 106 budget.
In closing, the Director-General said that the National System of Innovation (NSI) remained an enabling framework for science, technology and innovation initiatives. The National Development Plan (NDP) acknowledged the role that STI can play in addressing the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality in the country. In the reporting period, the DST had played a pivotal role through its contribution to addressing these challenges.
Dr A Lotriet (DA) referred to one of the target outcomes that had not been achieved due to administrative delays, particularly the target of having the pre-approval decisions provided within 90 days of receipt of application for the Research and Development (R&D) tax incentive, and asked if the under-performance had been a result of vacant positions said to have been caused by budget constraints.
Dr Mjwara replied that the Department needed technical expertise in order to evaluate the R&D proposals that came to the Department through the tax incentive programme. The Department did not have such skills, so it had to hire from outside to evaluate the ideas – whether the ideas constituted R&D, if they did, the basis of the recommendation to be made to the minister and to the South African Revenue Service (SARS). The DST was allowed to outsource goods and the services of experts. This had not affected the Department’s capacity to achieve the outcome of the R&D tax incentive.
Ms J Terblanche (DA) confirmed that the DST was aware of the letter that had been written by the outgoing Chairperson of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) about what had happened, allegations that had been made and the ministerial task team that had been set up to look into the allegations. She asked if the DST could enlighten the Committee about its view on the matter. She felt it was fair that the Committee should get a direct update of the matter, and not to only read about it in the media. The task team that had been assigned to investigate the issue had not wanted to write the report until they had been forced to. She had had to get this information from a different source, and she wanted to know if the DST had any comment on it.
Dr Mjwara replied that letter had been written by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the CSIR, whose contracts ended at the end of September. He had written the letter to employees after the Minister had received a “Protected Disclosure.” The Minister had been trying to engage the board on the process for testing the allegations in the Protected Disclosure. The Department was looking at the best possible way for the Minister to engage in this investigation. There had been an agreement that the board would carry on the investigation in partnership with the Department, but the person who would lead this would be an independent party to be appointed by the chair of the bar of the judiciary system, in order to make sure that the investigation was fair and objective. The DG assumed that the Minister would come to the Committee and share the outcome of the report. He added that he was personally interested in hearing how it went, because his name had been implicated in the allegations. He suspected that the report would probably take about to two to three months.
Mr N Paulsen (EFF) said he was happy that research had been done in the areas of sanitation, agriculture, minerals and energy provision. He asked how investment in these areas, in terms of budget allocation, compared to the elite sciences, such as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) and the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) project. He believed that sanitation, agriculture, minerals and energy provision were closer to the real needs of the society. How was research attracted and promoted in those areas? Did the DST monitor the implementation and impact of its outcomes?
The DG replied that they were not able to give the actual breakdown of allocated budgets in the investments at the moment, and the DST would provide the breakdown at a later stage. However, the investment required for infrastructure such as the SKA was generally much higher, because it was a major project. The Department looked at the appropriateness of a project in relation to its scale, and the amount of social economic returns that could be attained from it. He said that he would hope that Mr Paulsen would look not only at the investment in the projects, but also at the benefits that were derived from them. Regarding the monitoring of implementation and impact, the DG confirmed that the implementation was monitored. The Department had funded the Water Research Commission to development tools for assisting municipalities on how to assess the technologies that were used for sanitation and water provision. It had asked the Departments of Rural Development and Cooperative Governance to identity municipalities that did not have the expertise to pilot projects, and those that were not ready for the technologies they were piloting. The challenges seemed promising.
Ms Terblanche noted that there had not been an uptake on bursaries as a result of the #FeesMustFall situation late in 2015.
Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Chief Director: Human Capital and Science Promotion, DST, replied that the explanation for having no uptake on bursaries was that the higher education institutions had been unstable in the previous financial year.
Ms A Tuck (ANC) commended the DST on its ability to exceed some of the targets they had set. She commented that she had not seen the advertisement of the new anti-wrinkle product.
Mr Tommy Makhode, Chief Director: Communications, DST, replied that clinical trials had just been completed, but it still required approval from relevant bodies such as the South African Bureau of Standards.
Ms Tuck wanted to know if it might take more than two years.
Mr Makhode replied that the Department could not make commitments on the time frame.
Mr Paulsen pointed out that the NRF had not received any funding from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for the financial year 2015/16 for the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP). He asked what the DST was doing to get the funding.
Dr Matutu replied that the issue around THRIP funding was associated with the slightly inaccurate estimate of the number of researchers which would be funded. The DST had overestimated the number of researchers targeted. The inaccuracy of the estimate had been caused by the transition of funding from NRF to DTI.
Mr Paulsen asked exactly how much funding was required.
Dr Mjwara replied that they would look this information up on their records and send the reply later.
The Chairperson wanted to know about the progress in integrating or collaborating with other institutions that did similar work to the DST. He asked if one student from Tzaneen, who had been financially excluded, could be assisted.
Dr Mjwara replied that the Department was in the process of reviewing the 1996 Science and Technology White Paper, and at the moment they were coordinating budgets to minimize overlaps.
Dr Matutu explained that bursaries were offered to post-graduate students, and it was mostly students who were pursuing careers in line with the DST’s objectives that were chosen.
The Chairperson commented that the Department had included details in its reports which explained how its policies and performance were in line with the Committee’s development plan. He added that the Department should not wait for the Members to ask them about important information, such as clarity about what had been in the news, and should touch on these matters without having to be asked. He appreciated the Department’s input and commended the DG on always leading from the front.
The meeting was adjourned.
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