SA Participation in Square Kilometre Array; National Biotechnology Strategy Implementation & Developments: briefing

Arts and Culture

20 May 2003
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

20 May 2003

Acting Chairperson: Prof I Mohamed (ANC)

Documents handed out:

South African Participation in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)
National Biotechnology Strategy Implementation And Developments

The Committee was briefed on the science behind the Square Kilometre Array, and the South African bid and implications of hosting SKA. - the largest radio telescope in the world. The instrument, which was said to be 100 times more sensitive than today's best instruments, would symbolize significant technological advancement.

The Department of Science and Technology also briefed the Committee on the progress made in terms of the National Biotechnology Strategy, its implementation and developments.

South African Participation in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA): briefing
Mr Salojee, Managing Director, Technical Missions, explained that the SKA was contained in a spectrum of electromagnetic waves able to detect electromagnetic radiation. He said it would allow astronomers to see back in time to the event that happened close to the "Big Bang". It would use a radio telescopic aid in probing early evolution of the universe.

In the details of the spectrum given it was explained that the human eye could only detect a small spectrum termed visible spectrum. Mr Salojee described telescopes as 'light buckets' and described three types in particular: the optical telescope, cosmic ray telescope, and the radio telescope. He explained that this was a major drive whose array could not be built cost effectively; the proposed capital budget being US$1 billion. He added that no one instrument would be able to detect everything. From the onset the SKA would be an international endeavour. It was expected to be completed in 2015 and to have a life span of 50 years. The Site Evaluation and Selection Committee would decide where the SKA would be hosted.

Mr Salojee said South Africa had indicated to the International SKA Steering Committee (ISSC) its desire to host and bid for the SKA. He also explained that although South Africa was not a voting member, and only had observer status on the ISSC, it was fairly involved and would be hosting the 2004 ISSC meeting. He also pointed out that the European SKA consortium was an important partner, particularly since, due to the physical conditions in Europe, it would be not be conducive


to build SKA. South Africa would be an ideal site to pilot some of the technical developments, which in itself would be significant. He said that the first submission deadline date was 31 May 2003 and the final decision ought to be in 2005.

The bidding process deemed that the decision to host the SKA would be a decision supporting the country best for the telescope.

The SKA hasd to be built in a quiet enterprise (low RFI) site, spatial populated, with little economic activity. Mr Salojee outlined three suitable sites all in the Northern Cape: Kalahari, Karoo, and Namaqualand. He said these areas had substantial support from the Northern Cape Government, Northern Cape Mining industry and Telkom.

Mr Salojee said there were strong contenders but assured the Committee that that the SA bid preparation was sold and that South Africa had a good performance record in the industry, particularly in high technology mission driven projects.

Prof Mohamed suggested that in future discussion would be more fruitful if Members received copies of the presentation a few days before the briefing.

Mr M Cassim (IFP) asked if cultural elements regarding ownership of land had been taken into account. He gave an example of the aborigines in Australia. He also asked if there would be some sort of legislation put into place.

Mr Salojee was unable to answer both questions sufficiently. He said the issue of land claims had been looked into.

Ms S Motubatse-Hounkpatin (ANC) asked what the benefits and detriments a successful bid would mean to the ordinary South African.

Mr Salojee said benefits would include job creation and the establishing the region as a premier facility by revamping infrastructure. As part of the bid preparation, they would investigate what effects space would have on the work with the telescope. He also pointed out that the term "bidding" was a poor term because the process would not entail the same type of competitive bidding processes often seen when sporting events were involved. The host would have to best fit the criteria required by geographical environment and conditions.

Mr V Gore (DA) asked Mr Salojee to elaborate on how the universities and the economic environment would benefit.

Mr Salojee explained that a comprehensive study would be conducted at a number of centres of excellence. It would also attract enormous economic injection. He said that although top end technology was not yet known, there would be a need for vast amounts of steel and aluminium, fibre optic cables to service the telescope, electronics for the development of the array, software development, and installations of all kinds. He further explained that involvement was a key component as industries would benefit from interacting with SKA, particularly in the operations of the maintenance of the radio telescope.

Ms H Mpaka (ANC) asked if the municipalities, as custodians of the IDC, were involved.

Mr Salojee assured the Member that this had been done. Hosting a telescope of this nature would attract numerous scientists from all spheres to use it as research he emphasised that with industrial participation, a lot of the money for this will be sourced. No country on its own can put up $1 billion for the development of technology. South Africa would have to make a capital outlay and use it to develop the country's economy.

Mr Cassim suggested that SKA South Africa complete the bid representation and then let the committee decide over it.

Biotechnology Strategy Implementation and Developments: briefing
Due to time constraints Mr Ben Durham gave a brief overview of the National Biotechnology Strategy. He concentrated more on its implementation. Biotechnology was a strategy that should be developed nationally as it held development potential for South Africa. He added that it needed stimulation and control to ensure that it developed in a responsible fashion. He explained that biotechnology was focusing on taking research and development, and transferring them to products and services.

Key to the National Biotechnology Strategy implementation is the establishment of Biotechnology Regional Centres (BRIC's):
- Ecobio in Natal.
- CBI in Cape Town.
- BioPad in Pretoria.

Mr Durham felt that insufficient emphasis and recognition was being given to Plant Biotechnology. He said that there were plans to establish a separate BRIC with a national focus at the university of Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

He highlighted data intensive national Bioinformatics Network headed by Casper Schutte of UNISA, Pretoria. He explained that the network centre used at the University of the Western Cape as a national base. To ensure data processing and capabilities node were established at UWC, RAU, UP, WITS, UCT, and US. Mr Durham said that each node was in the process of developing a discipline.

Mr Durham further explained that the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology (FEST) had been mandated to run programmes to present a balanced view of biotechnology in order to promote public understanding. He also spoke of the intentions they had to set up a Biotechnology Advisory Committee that would make recommendations on direction and investment, and provide oversight of Biotechnology in South Africa.

He concluded that SA needed to keep in sync with the rest of the world. Efforts included the coordination of biotech partners from research through to commercialisation of products and services as key features.



Mr Cassim requested that a brief memorandum be sent to the secretary of the Committee in order to keep Committee Members abreast with what was going on in the Department.

Ms Mpaka was concerned about the safety issues raised at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) about biotechnology.

Mr Gore wanted to gain clarity about the ethics involved in cloning. As biotechnology national strategy partly focused on research and development, Mr Gore asked about the use of biotechnology in computer technology and whether there were implication of storage and speed.

Mr Durham said the NACI had an ethics committee and pending an agreement, BAC would soon be a sub committee that would look at issues such as cloning. He added that the Department of Health also had an ethics committee, and that each research environment had ethics committees that perhaps needed to get to speed with such issues.

Mr Durham explained that biotechnology was a developing area in South Africa, and given that hardware technology developed and changed very rapidly, they would be looking at a strategy. He added that he would need to find out more about how nano-technology and biotechnology related.

Mr S Opperman (DA) wanted information on control and oversight of biotechnology.

Mr Durham assured the Member that he would make the information available as soon as possible.

The meeting was adjourned.


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