Research and Development in South Africa mandate and role: National Research Foundation briefing

NCOP Public Enterprises and Communication

15 February 2017
Chairperson: Ms E Prins (ANC, Western Cape)
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Meeting Summary

The Chairperson noted apologies from the Deputy Minister.


The National Research Foundation highlighted its position within the National System of Innovations and the organs of government, policy makers, regulators and agencies that it works with to achieve its mandate. The Foundation supports Researchers with infrastructure, grants and issues bursaries to Honours, Masters and Doctoral students for knowledge generation that will add value to the country’s development. The Foundation is steered by the government on areas to invest and support. It facilitates research in food security, economic development and social integration and sustainability, areas which will transform the country. The organisation works young and old universities to support research programmes and place students that are on National Research Foundation Bursaries, particularly black researchers. for example, the Foundation has worked with the University of Western Cape. The University’s willingness to work with the organisation is crucial irrespective of age or history of the University.


The Foundation supports research to improve teaching in Mathematics and Science, research for solutions to human problems, for example HIV vaccination and renewable energy. It has added value to the National System of Innovation’s social-economic impact goals in basic education, health, sustainable development in rural communities, food security research and Infrastructure networks such as the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerated Basic Science which supply isotopes for cancer detection in South Africa and abroad.


Like most institutions, the Foundation is challenged on the need to balance resources against the demand and need. The resources are not enough to provide support to all applicants especially those who need more support such as Black women in research. The organisation must be frugal in its expenditure without compromising the quality of grants to beneficiaries. To support Researchers, the Foundation has invested in research platforms and infrastructure located across the country which can be accessed from anywhere. The location for the infrastructure is based on scientific considerations such as Sutherland, which is dark and therefore the best place to view the cosmos.


A challenge highlighted by Members and confirmed by the Foundation is the lack of capacity to trace beneficiaries of bursaries once they graduate and take up jobs outside the Higher Education system. To resolve this dilemma, the organisation will work with SARS and also use a grant received from Minister Pandor to set up a graduate database.


Members appreciated the presentation as many were not aware the Foundation issued Bursaries. They stressed the need for the organisation to spread the message of its work to rural areas to encourage young black students to enrol on NRF Bursaries and encourage the young people to join sciences such as ocean economy studies, where black people have historically been less represented.


The Chairperson summarised that the Foundation will be invited to appear again before the Committee to provide information on the number of universities that have worked with organisation and what type of support they received, and also address Member’s questions which may have not been exhausted in this meeting.


Meeting report

Opening remarks

The Chairperson welcomed all Members of Parliament present and invited guests. She noted apologies from the Deputy Minister.

The Guests were introduced by Chief Executive Officer, NRF, Dr Molapo Qhobela, as Mr Gerhard Moolman, NRF Manager: Information Analysis; Ms Faranah Osman, NRF Executive Director-Governance; Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Department: Science & Technology-Chief Director: Human Capital and Science Promotion; Mr Martin Mulcahy, Department: Science & Technology-Advisor.


National Research Foundation (NRF) Presentation      

Dr Qhobela apologised for not providing a soft copy of the presentation. He gave the status of NRF in the National System of Innovation (NSI). The NRF’s key partners and policy makers are the Department of Science & Technology (DST) and Department of High Education & Training (DHET). NRF also works with advisory bodies such as the Council of High Education (CHE), South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), Academy of Sciences, National Nuclear Regulator, and Water Research Commission. It works with Government Agencies like the National Financial Aid Scheme, Technology Agencies, National Institute of Innovations and Social Sciences. NRF participates in general knowledge research through business units. It operates in the Northern Cape at the Sutherland iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences (LABS), at South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape and the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria.


NRF supports and promotes research and knowledge generation through human capacity development, promotes research and knowledge generation through the provision of National Research Platforms, strengthening the relationship between science and society through science engagement. NRF works to contribute to national needs as detailed in the State of the Nation Address (SONA).


NRF aims to ensure South Africa is globally competitive in science and research technology such as the investments in Telescopes in Sutherland and IThemba LABS. NRF provides support to postgraduate students. Currently, it supports 15% of all Doctoral students on financial aid compared to 25% being supported by the National Financial Aid Scheme. However, 35% of all Doctoral graduates are those supported by NRF. This is because the Doctoral students supported by NRF complete their education within a minimum period of 3.41years compared to 7 years for students under the National Financial Aid Scheme. NRF graduates are 19% at Masters and 12% at Honours level.


Total expenditure in 2016 was under R5 billion and the bulk of NRF’s investment goes to Research Grants and equipment for Researchers. NRF has invested in science engagement research platforms for example the Sutherland Robotics Telescope and the iThemba LABS and Human capacity development. NRF supports all students including those studying the Humanities, Arts, Economics, African Studies and not just sciences, to support society and improve the economy.


Challenges are adequacy of resources to fund students for example, the average cost of study for an Honours student is R130,000. This is for fees, food, accommodation, allowances, books which may not be fully covered by the bursary NRF provides.

Adequacy of reach, for example, in 2016 applications for Masters were 8874, 89% were eligible for review, 64% were fundable but only 28% received funding.


In terms of value added by NRF, South Africa produces 7% of world productivity, 44% of that is produced by Scientists and 42% of the research productivity in the country are those supported by NRF. 32% of those Researchers are black women. Areas of study include research to improve teaching in Mathematics and Science, research for solutions to human problems for example HIV vaccination and animal vaccines as well as renewable energy. NRF has added value to NSI’s social-economic impact goals in basic education, health, sustainable development in rural communities, food security research and Infrastructure networks such as the iThemba LABS which supply isotopes for cancer detection in South Africa and abroad. The problem is that NRF cannot support all the academics researchers worthy of support, such as black women, against demand. However, there has been an 80% increase in support for Doctoral graduates from 2011-2017. A case study to illustrate NRF’s support is work done with University of Western Cape (UWC) where the majority of students are women and it has very high population of African and Coloured students compared to other Universities. Due to NRF support, UWC now has 67% increase in number of staff with Doctoral Degrees. UWC leadership has successfully worked with NRF to identify the needs of the University.


NRF’s other success stories include the National research infrastructure platforms such as the South African International Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, with telescopes in Sutherland, Northern Cape, South Africa Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) in Grahamstown which has the largest fish collection in Africa, the South Africa Environmental Observation Network which monitors effects of climate change. These Platforms are accessible from anywhere. The CEO invited all members to visit the iThemba LABS to appreciate the work done at the Laboratory.  



Mr J Parkies (ANC, Free State) appreciated the presentation as he did not know the work and functions of the NRF. He asked the NRF to clarify its relationship with the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) on work on food security. He asked if NRF gave funds to the individual Universities to distribute and whether the students are approved by NRF when identified by the University. To address issues of inequality, how many black Scientists are doing research on the oceans economy supported by NRF and how much work does NRF do on career guidance to students in rural areas so that the children living in far off places should know of subjects such as marine science and other opportunities that are available from NRF.


Ms Z Ncitha (ANC, Eastern Cape) found the presentation interesting and concurred with Honourable Parkies as she only knew about NRF’s work on research and not about the bursaries. She encouraged the Committee and NRF to spread the message on the work and support what is done by the organisation for the benefit of people around the country. She asked, based on the figures on slide 8, why there are less students supported in Mathematics Economics and Engineering when these skills are needed in the country. As the presentation said NRF had received a low grant from the Parliamentary grant, has the reduced grant made NRF to scale down in priorities or affected its plans? She asked NRF to give an update on the transfer of the National Zoological Gardens the South Africa National Bio-diversity Institution scheduled in 2016/2017? NRF said Grahamstown has the biggest fish collections, please explain where in Grahamstown the place is located as she is from that area and her constituents are there as well.


Mr J Julius (ANC, Gauteng) said his question was the same as raised by Mr Parkies. When looking at the focus areas to fund, what are the requirements for funding? It can be dangerous to only rely on the universities on the requirements for funding. The focus point for government has been economic development, he asked where economic development, innovations and SMEs lie in the funding. Who determines the course for the funding and are the areas aligned to government policies? If government is not steering the course, then the tail may be wagging the dog. Does NRF rely on the universities to decide on the requirements for funding and are there foreign students coming to do research funded by South Africa. South Africa needs to develop its own people but we see more and more foreign students doing research in South Africa. Does South Africa have enough Researchers? Do we have a mechanism to track the success of innovations which have gone to production stage? Does it cost R130,000 to pay for an Honours Degree as per slide 9? He suggested to the Committee that this is an area that needs money as departments like these will change our future and the economy. This department will feed other departments; therefore, it should be suggested to other departments to contribute to this initiative if they have money left or the departments should motivate for more money to contribute to NRF. During National Budget allocation, NRF should get more funding as the work done by the institution will change the country’s future.


Ms N Mokgosi (EFF, Northern Cape) wanted to know of the 5 leaners who were awarded the Bursary in 2015 in the Northern Cape, were they identified within the Northern Province itself or identified from other Provinces and given bursaries to study in the Northern Cape?


Mr Parkies asked how the NRF identified location for Laboratories like iThemba, what criteria is used? The support for individuals, how did the NRF balance that with the historically disadvantaged Institutions such as UWC against for instance Stellenbosch University or Rhodes? Was the NRF able to trace these students and say this particular student is our product and this is where he/she works? In relation to food security, how many NRF students are at the Vaccine Development Institution because the issue of food security is a security issue. How many Black quality experts are being developed for our own Sovereignty and food security? How much was South Africa involved in the development of the HIV vaccine or medication published few weeks ago?  What was the level of South Africa’s involvement or was it developed by a private entity?


Ms Ncitha asked how climate change would impact where fish are found and what is the recourse in terms of this?


Mr Julius stated, on a lighter note, whether NRF knows anyone involved that was funded by NRF for the injections of the EFF?


The Chairperson said for South Africa to be part of the rest of the developing world, it needs to produce 1500 graduates a year, based on recent statistics on the level Black students drop out, will the country be able to compete and deliver? She would submit other questions in writing.  


Dr Molapo Qhobela replied that the Students were identified in the Northern Cape and it was the first time that Carnarvon High School graduate students were eligible to enter university.


The relationship with ARC is strong. NRF working with University of Pretoria places interns at ARC, funds ARC researchers and the CEO of NRF works with the ARC Chief Executive Officer in planning future projects.


The Bursaries aim to change society and change the profile of people that generate knowledge for use in society. Emphasis is on black students based on Ministerial targets which say that 80% of Bursaries should go to black South African students. 5% is given to International Students in the SADC region and the continent. The government steers the decisions and not just the Universities.


Black students are enrolled in the study of ocean sciences. Resources do matter as many young students come to NRF because they have heard of the work done with SAQA. Students get to know the work of NRF in life skills talks, and science camps to teach children beyond the subjects that they take in class.


The SAIAB in Grahamstown is located opposite Debonairs Pizza.


Dr Qhobela said there is a low portion of maths and economics because South Africa does not have many Mathematicians but NRF tries to cover the key disciplines in allocation of resources. NRF is working with the Department of Higher Education and Training to fund Doctoral Degrees for those who teach Mathematics and Economics. Therefore, it is a function of availability of resources become available.


On the Parliamentary Grant, NRF is grateful for every penny. In the 2016/2017 financial year, it increased by 0.5% representing a negative growth. 5.5%.  In the coming year, it will grow by 5.4%. The challenge is to understand the status of the economy and work to fully utilize the funds made available by government.


Transfer of Zoological Gardens is scheduled for 21 April 2017. It will make the SAIAB an excellent centre in the study of flora and fauna.


Operation Phakisa deliberately targets black students to enter the aquatic study programme and sciences. NRF can do more but needs more support.


To track innovations to productive stage, the Committee should invite the Technology Innovations Agency (TIS) under the Department of Science and Technology. TIA is mandated to take the innovations to production phase and it is a sister organisation of NRF mandated to take innovations into productive phase.


Dr Qhobela said the Government steers all the programmes and direction of the research and enrolment.  Minister Nzimande approves every student enrolment plan for each University and the areas the students should be focused on. NRF works with him and the Department of Science and Technology to support and steer the research and funding towards where the government needs growth.


There are two ways on how beneficiaries for Bursaries are chosen, NRF gives money to the University and the University identifies the students and NRF approves. Or Students ask for funding directly from NRF.


Tracking yes and no, for example, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg won a competition in High School, went to study at Oxford University in the UK and obtained a PhD from Oxford University. There are many other examples from work done by NRF and its predecessor. However, NRF is working with SARS to track those outside the high education institutions to resolve the tracking dilemma.


On the HIV Vaccine, NRF supports the Centre of Excellence at KZN University where there has been ground breaking HIV research at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA). CAPRISA developed a protective gel for HIV protection in a research done by Dr Abdul Karim and his wife Quarraisha. NRF made a modest contribution to support CAPRISA but the bulk of financing came from International organisations. The research was done in South Africa.


Dr Qhobela said the decision on where to locate Infrastructure varies, some choices are based on historical reasons for example Cape town, and some because it makes scientific sense, for example Sutherland is one of the darkest places and it is the best place to capture light out of the sky and view the cosmos and galaxy. For Grahamstown, although Port Alfred is around the corner-grown, Grahamstown has matured as a place of science.


In terms of the cost of Honours, the fees for Honours are not R130, 000, the fee component is R30, 000. R130,000 is the full cost of study inclusive of accommodation, transport, food and other needs for a young person to leave home and go to a University. The challenge is what it means for a young person to go to school, it takes a lot more than just fees.


Dr Phethiwe Matutu reminded Dr Qhobela to address the question on the balance of support given to research intensive Universities against those historically disadvantaged.


The UWC was chosen because of choices of leadership to embrace change. Now UWC outstrips most white universities compared to where it was 40years ago. And the Government supported the path that UWC took. Or University of Venda which has progressed to have world class facilities, bright students, internationally competitive academics although it is young at 30years old.  NRF works with each individual institution based on the university’s readiness to absorb the support. The youngest institution working with NRF is Sol Plaatje University in Kimberly. The well-established Institutions have different challenges like Stellenbosch and UCT have a challenge with transformation of research cohorts. The challenge is how to work with them to ensure that young black scientists are represented and supported within the institution. NRF works with the well-established institutions in different ways.

The Chairperson said it will be very good to see what work is done by the NRF with each University it supports in the next presentation, and to understand certain political dimensions.


Ms Ncitha said the Committee must help oversight of institutions and address the threats to NRF’s sustainability. NRF was modest on the effect of on the Parliamentary grant. The report says it threatens NRF’s sustainability. NRF should talk more on that. The Committee has a responsibility to help institutions and protect the sustainability. 


Mr Julius, on the issue for NRF to specify what University is given what by NRF in the next report, asked for clarity on what was meant by political consequences?


The Chairperson replied that it was not ANC over DA politics. How we choose certain universities will help us understand NRF.


Mr Parkies said the answer on the ability to trace, as collective leadership, when you calculate 5 years down the line, on how many NRF developed and where they are placed, did not come out clearly.


Dr Qhobela agreed with the lack of ability to trace graduates by NRF. The intention is to change for the better those that produce knowledge for the country and to respond to societal needs. Therefore, the ability to trace is important, but it is also important to steer them in the right direction. For example, many Theoretical Physicists end on the stock market and NRF must steer them where they are needed. NRF received a generous collection from Minister Pandor to put in place a tracing programme and find where NRF’s graduates are.


There is sustainability on Finances and Operational sustainability. NRF tries to be frugal and economic to contain costs while maintaining and fulfilling its mandate. For example, NRF cannot give more research grants while making the value smaller as that will be counterproductive. NRF tries to protect its core business. It works with government to balance aspirations and the resources available.


NRF supports the social and economic needs of the country. It is hard to balance water and food security, energy and economic development and climate change. The nexus is difficult and to achieve balance, NRF has researchers looking on how to find a balance between the competing priorities.


The Chairperson concluded that NRF will be called to appear before the Committee again as there are more questions from the Committee such as why money is put in some universities and what they are doing, do we get the money out. We need to know the track record of students in the Department of High Education.


Dr Qhobela thanked the Chairperson and the Committee for the invitation. NRF looked forward to coming back and will try to build the profile of the Universities.

Adoption of minutes
The Committee considered and adopted minutes of a meeting in November 2016.


The meeting was adjourned.





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