Department of Science and Technology Quarter 3 performance; National Research Foundation Bill: consideration; with Minister

Science and Technology

14 March 2018
Chairperson: Ms L Maseko (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Ms Mmamoloko Kubayi Ngubane, the new Minister of Science and Technology, was welcomed to the meeting and to the Department.

The Committee was briefed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on its  performance and financial report for the third quarter, covering the period from October to December 2017. The Department had achieved 78% of its planned output targets, and spent 80.3% of its quarterly budget. It was commended for having 4 382 researchers awarded research grants.

The proposed amendments to the National Research Foundation (NRF) Amendment Bill were discussed, with special reference to the Minister’s concerns about Clauses 9 and 12, and the submission by the Auditor General. The Minister felt that the section dealing with the executive management committee in Clause 9 should not be changed, as there had to be certainty that an executive structure was a team, together with the board, that could be held accountable, and the heads of divisions had to be part of the executive committee. The Committee agreed on the wording for Section 9 in the new Amendment Bill. Clause 12 was amended to read that “the Foundation may, after consultation with the Minister, establish or disestablish organisational divisions consistent with the objects of the Act.”   

During discussion on the performance report, Members asked about internships; whether graduates were being employed; for a racial and gender breakdown of university qualifications and bursary awards; what was meant by the ‘ineffectiveness of implementers’ affecting the achievement of targets; why overall performance figures had declined significantly between the second quarter and third quarters; how many black PhD graduates remained in academia; the beneficiation of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project; and what had happened to the R15 million allocated for drought relief measures.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed the new Minister, Ms Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, to the meeting and wished her well on her journey with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Ministry. The Committee looked forward to a fruitful term with her and it was made clear that this Committee was hard working and very keen on engagement with all the issues pertinent to the Department.

The Chairperson said that the Minister had asked for the opportunity to present herself to Committee and to deal with her concerns related to the National Research Foundation Amendment Bill [B23-2017]. The Minister’s issues would be dealt with first, before she would be released to go to Cabinet.

Minister’s concerns with National Research Foundation Amendment Bill

The Minister said she would use this opportunity to introduce herself to the team. She was at the service of the Committee and looked forward to a working partnership between everyone.

Part of what she had received was briefings and some of the legislation. Of particular concern was Clause 9, Section 9 of the principal Act, dealing with the ‘executive management committee’, because when one tried to understand where the initial process came from – in terms of when interacting with the team – from the Department’s point of view, one should be able to say, “this was the Bill we were bringing, take it to Cabinet and then bring it to the National Assembly and Parliament for National Council of Provinces (NCOP) processes.”

She felt that in terms of what Clause 9 was saying, ‘executive management committee Section 1 (a), (b), (c)’ should not be changed. Fortunately this was a proposal from the National Research Foundation (NRF), and not from the Department itself. One wanted to be certain that an executive structure was a team, together with a board that could be held accountable. Heads of division had to be part of the executive committee. ‘1c’ allowed for a situation where it was critical for a certain person to be part of the executive management committee. Concern was expressed about the manner in which this amendment was expressed. After interacting informally with the Chairperson, she wanted to set the record straight from the Department’s point of view as to where it stood with regard to this clause.

Mr N Koornhof (ANC) said it would be easy for them as a Committee, because this particular clause was not part of the NRF Amendment Bill. It was basically not in front of the Committee, unless it received permission from Parliament. In the discussions here today, it would be resolved not to take the interim report to Parliament to ask for permission, so it would remain as Clause 9.

Dr Rene Osborne-Mullins, Content Advisor, Parliament, said that the Committee did not accept the submission to change Clause 9, but because they had decided to neaten up the wording without changing the meaning and content, they still needed to go to the House to ask for permission to make their textual changes in terms of the rules.  She read Section 9 as the Committee proposed that it should be in the new Amendment Bill:

9. Executive management committee

  1. The executive management committee of the Foundation must consist of-
  1. the chief executive officer, as chairperson;
  2. the heads of the divisions, if any; and
  3. if necessary, any other member of the staff of the Foundation.
  1. The executive management committee is responsible for the management of

the affairs of the Foundation in accordance with the object, policy and instructions of the Board.”

The Chairperson questioned ‘…the heads of the divisions, if any; and’ because she felt the wording did not flow as it should have.

The Minister recommended that it should read: ‘…the divisions, and (c) if necessary, any other member…

Dr Osborne-Mullins said that the ‘if any’ came from the submission that actually said that the definition for ‘divisions’ should be removed, because it was an operational matter. Further, if the definition of ‘divisions’ and the reference to it was removed,  then that was where the suggestion to remove ‘the head of the division’ came from in Section 9. However all of that was retained by the Committee.

Dr Osborne-Mullins said that the change for ‘Section 12 Divisions of Foundation’, the Amendment Bill introduced: ‘The Foundation may, after consultation with the Minister, establish or disestablish organisational divisions for different research fields or functions consistent with the objects of the Act’. All the other bits were removed by the Amendment Bill. The NRF submission suggested that even the first part of Section 12 be removed. The argument for the removal was that it was operational. The ‘divisions’ mentioned in the principal act were never established. However, the argument from the Members was that if a particular person did not know the NRF, and wanted to know what it did, what it was supposed to do and how it was regulated, their first port of call would be the Act which had established it. Hence the Members felt that the ‘divisions’ clause should be retained. However, it had been amended to read:

The Foundation may, after consultation with the Minister, establish or disestablish organisational divisions consistent with the objects of the Act’.   

The argument was that it was still at the discretion of the Foundation to establish divisions and what they would be called. Members then discussed the text, which was where the ’if any’ part came in.

Dr Molapo Qhobelo, CEO, National Research Foundation, said that the organisation was at the meeting, working under the leadership of this Committee and the Minister. The NRF did not put things on the table just for branding purposes, but it had discussed, consulted and come to an understanding of what was good for the country at large. The NRF worked under the authority of the Minister and Parliament, and was supportive of the ‘divisions,’ as Ms Osborne-Mullins had indicated. He assured the Minister that the NRF was in concert with ‘divisions’ as stated in the Bill. However, one had to be clear on what a ‘division’ was.

The Chairperson confirmed that Section 9 would remain as it was.

The Minister said she was comfortable with Clause 9 and 12.

Department of Science and Technology: Third Quarter Performance Report

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General (DG): DST, said that the Department’s strategic outcome-oriented goals were:

  • A responsive, coordinated and efficient National System of Innovation (NSI);
  • Increased knowledge generation;
  • Human capital development;
  • Using knowledge for economic development; and
  • Knowledge utilisation for inclusive development.

During the period under review, the total number of planned output targets was 32. The DG said that the Department had achieved 78% of them.

The National Research Foundation Bill amended the current NRF Act in respect of the Minister’s powers to determine the national research and funding policy, and to declare national research facilities and research institutions.

It was commendable that 4 382 researchers had been awarded research grants. Key developments in the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project were that 64 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope, a precursor of the project, had been installed, 58 dishes had been handed over to SKA South Africa by the contractor; and  the project was progressing well towards commissioning of the telescope for science by the end of the current financial year.

Overall DST performance per programme was:

  • Programme 1 (Administration): 75% of its targets achieved;
  • Programme 2 (Technology Innovation): 75% achieved;
  • Programme 3 (International Cooperation and Resources): 75% achieved;
  • Programme 4 (Research Development and Support) achieved 100% of its targets; and
  • Programme 5 (Socio-economic Innovation Partnerships): achieved 70% of its targets.

Non-achievement of targets was generally due to ineffectiveness of implementers and administrative delays. The financial report showed that the DST had planned to spend R6 910 456 (91.4%) of its quarterly budget, but had ended up spending only R6 069 049 (80.3%), which represented under-spending of R841 407.

The DG said that to ensure that NDP goals were realised, the DST would continue to play a central role in providing Science, Engineering, Technology and Innovation (SETI) initiatives that enhanced delivery and development.

(See attached Report)


The Chairperson asked about the situation regarding the funding of internships.

Ms A Mfulo (ANC) asked for clarity about internships.

Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director General (DDG): DST, said the funds for internships were under review by the National Treasury, which had made cuts to the internship programme.

Ms Mfulo asked if graduates were being employed.

Dr Auf der Heyde said that the Department did absorb interns after they had been with the Department for a period of time. About two thirds of the interns that the Department placed in institutions ended up with a full time job within five or six months of being interned. The Department had a very high success rate, and a report on this would be forwarded to the Committee.

Mr M Kekana (ANC) referred to page 20 and asked for a breakdown of the universities and the qualifications -- like Masters, Honours and PhD -- which the DST was ‘using,’ because some students he had come across had complained about nepotism with regard to the allocation of bursaries.

Dr Auf der Heyde said that broadly there were three processes or programmes for awarding bursaries:

  • The National Research Foundation advertised for applications for bursary awards and students applied directly to the NRF. The selection process happened at the NRF;
  • The NRF provided funding to all universities for them to award bursaries to post graduate students according to certain criteria. Here the universities made the selections; and
  • Through research grant holders, like a senior professor or senior researcher, who received a grant from the NRF, and that included a portion for a bursary. This was called a Grant Holder linked Bursary. In these cases the researcher, in conjunction with the university processes, made the selection of who got the award.

It would be impossible to say that there was no bias anywhere, but he was not aware of any systematic bias that might be of concern to the Committee or to the Department. The big challenge was simply that there were insufficient funds for all the students that required funding. A national framework had been developed with the NRF that clarified that the priority for awarding bursaries was needy students. The definition for needy students had also been amended and aligned in the same way as for the DHET and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Ms Mfulo asked for details on the researchers, and asked if there was a breakdown in terms of race, gender and disability. She also asked where these researchers were located now.

Dr Auf der Heyde replied that the researchers who had been awarded grants were all at public institutions, specifically at public universities. These research grants were awarded to people at South African universities, who were employed by and at those universities. The Department could provide a demographic break down over a five-year period of who had received grants and their institutional affiliations.

Ms Mfulo asked what was meant by ‘Ineffectiveness of implementers,’ as stated in the category of ‘Variance Classification’ in the DST’s Sampled Underperformance Overview.

Ms A Tuck (ANC) asked what was being done to deal with the ‘ineffectiveness of implementers’.

The DG said that the Department did not do the work within the DST. The work was done by entities. Some of the entities, like the National Research Foundation and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) received direct Parliamentary grants from the Ministry. The others were selected on the basis of the competence they had in a particular area. Not all implementers were able to meet the agreed upon targets, sometimes because there were technical challenges. The Department tried to minimise drawbacks by working fairly closely with institutions and often requested first, second and quarterly reports in terms of getting early warning signals as part of monitoring the progress of implementation.

Ms C King (DA) referred to the overall performance and said she had noticed regressions in two areas. There had been an 83% achievement in administration in the second quarter and now there was a 75% achievement. In the Socio-economic Innovation Partnerships Programme, 70% of the targets had been achieved, compared to the second quarter’s 90%. This was worrying, and she asked for an explanation.

Ms Nomkhosi Peter, Director Strategy and Planning, DST, replied that the Department had reported on the indicators that were due for only that specific quarter, so the performance reported on was for the targets for that specific quarter. It was only at the end of the fourth quarter that the report would show the performance across all quarters.               

The Chairperson referred to the pending legislation, and asked if the Department had time frames to assist the Committee with its planning.

Ms King asked for more information about the tabling date of the annual performance plan (APP) for 2019.

Ms Peter replied that the Department had met the deadline for submission to the National Treasury by 30 November, as well as the tabling date of 12 March to Parliament.

Mr Kekana asked for more information about infrastructural matters surrounding the Department.

Dr Auf der Heyde said that the DG had asked him to respond generally on the issue but he had also asked him to talk about beneficiation by the SKA. The infrastructure allocation to the Department was invested in a number of big infrastructure projects. The first was the South African Research Network, which was the fibre optic cable network that linked all public universities and all public research councils together. It included at this stage all the rural campuses as well. This network linked all public research sites in South Africa and was funded by the Department of Science and Technology, so there was definitely significant benefit that accrued to all public institutions in the public research space. There was also the National Equipment Programme, which funded research equipment that was placed at all South African universities. This was managed by the National Research Foundation, and they would also be able to provide historical data about how the funds had been invested.

The third big programme was what was called the “high end infrastructure.” This was the investment in pilot plants where outputs from research activities like new products, new materials, or new chemicals or processes, were tested at the pilot level before they could be fully commercialised. The Department partnered and funded a number of beneficiation projects, the records of which would be forwarded to the Committee if so desired.

The fourth big programme was providing funding for the capital expansion of the national facilities at the NRF, like the South African National Astronomical Observatory, the Hartbeeshoek Radio Observatory, and other national facilities managed by the NRF, which provided capital maintenance as well.

Mr Kekana asked for a breakdown with regard to beneficiation of the SKA project.

Dr Auf der Heyde replied that Mr Kekana and the Committee would be provided with the relevant information. Broadly speaking, some 7 000 jobs had been created during the construction of the MeerKat. These were not all permanent positions, but had been jobs that were created during the manufacturing of the dishes. Members would recall that when they were last briefed on the SKA, it could be recalled that 75% of the components of the dishes were manufactured in South Africa. That was really where the big employment programme had happened during the construction of these dishes. The Department was hoping that when the SKA was finally rolled out, the additional 130 dishes would be constructed in South Africa. The country could then benefit directly through developing the capacity and competence to put the dishes together locally.

There were also a number of local beneficiaries from the Northern Cape in particular, who benefited from the construction of the roads. Investments had also been made in empowering the schools in the area, with direct investments in several of the school children who were now studying at universities, funded fully by the SKA project. A wide range of investments had been made which benefited the community in that area and more broadly the nation. Details of this would be forwarded to the Committee Secretary for dissemination.

Mr Koornhof asked if the breakdown of PhD graduates was available, but more importantly, he wanted to know how many black PhD graduates remained in academia.

Dr Auf der Heyde said that this question was of concern to the Department and the NRF, in that it begged the question as to whether the students that were graduating were being accommodated. He did not have the exact answer to the question in his head right now. The NRF could link the information about the students it had supported, those who were supported as emerging researchers, or early stage academics at the universities, and would be able to say how many former grant holders had ended up being professors or associate professors at university. This could be done fairly easily. More broadly, there were many PhD graduates -- black, white, coloured and Indian -- who had not received grants from the NRF. The greater difficulty would be around tracking and finding out whether they had remained in the universities, so this was a question that the DST would need to agree on, but as a start the Department could do an analysis on the people it had had exposure to.

Ms N Ndongeni (ANC) asked where the R15 million for drought had been invested.

Ms Tuck asked if there was a programme of action that showed if and how other drought-stricken provinces would have access to the R15 million to address the problem.

Dr Mjwara said that the R15 million had been made available by the Department itself and all consortium members, including the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. A written breakdown of the contributions by all consortium members would be forwarded to the Committee.

The Chairperson said six dishes that had not yet been handed over, and asked when this would happen.

The DG said that the provisional date for the handover was at the end of March, but this would still be verified with the project office. The final report about this would be handed over to the Committee in the next two days.

The Department and the NRF were thanked for their engagement.

This session was adjourned.

National Research Foundation Amendment Bill [B23-2017]

The Chairperson addressed the State Law Advisor, the Parliamentary Legal Advisor and Dr A Lotriet (DA), who had arrived late, and said that the Minister was not comfortable with Section 9 and Section 12 of the NRF Amendment Bill. These matters had been dealt with.  A submission had been received from the Auditor General (AGSA) regarding the Bill. This matter would be dealt with as the meeting proceeded through Version 2 of the working document on the Bill.

Ms Barbara Loots, Parliamentary Legal Advisor, said that the working group had tried to capture the decisions taken by the Committee last week in Version 2 of the Working Document. The concerns raised by the Minister this morning, and the submission by the Attorney General, had been noted and would be worked on as they appeared while working through the document.

1.         Definitions

The definition of ‘division’ was changed to:

‘division’ means a division of the Foundation envisaged under section 12.

3A.       Powers of the Minister to issue policy guidelines

The title was changed to read:

‘Powers of the Minister to determine policy and issue policy guidelines’

Ms Loots said 3A (2) would be retained because 3A (1) and 3A (2) spoke to two separate issues -- the one to the policy and the other to the guidelines.

4.         Functions, powers and duties of Foundation

4 1 (d) was changed to:

‘promote multi-disciplinary and trans disciplinary collaboration;’

4 1 (h) was changed to:

‘review research proposals and results promoted by the Foundation;’

Dr Lotriet referred to page 12, ‘5. National Facilities for research,’ and asked for clarity relating to 5 (4) and 5(6), and suggested that it could say ‘the Minister may determine regulations for national research facilities as determined under 5(1)’   

Mr Koornhof agreed with the suggestion.

Ms Loots replied that it could be inserted as clarification for a consequential amendment.

4A     Exercise powers of Foundation outside Republic

4 (2) was amended to read:

‘Subject to the provision of subsection (3), the provisions of this Act apply to the Foundation, in so far as is possible, when it exercises its powers in terms of this section outside the territory of the Republic’.

7.         Meetings of the Board

7 (3) was amended to read:

The chairperson-

  1. may, at any time, convene a special meeting of the Board;
  2. must, within 14 days of a request to convene a special meeting of the Board signed by at least one third of the members of the Board convene such a meeting; and
  3. must determine the time and place of the meeting convened in terms of paragraph (a) or (b)’.

9.         Executive management committee

Mr Koornhof said that Clause 9 had been discussed and he formally proposed that Clause 9 be retained.

The Chairperson said that then the Report did not have to be taken to the House to seek permission.

10.        Chief executive officer of Foundation

10 (2) and 10 (3) had been amended to read:

‘(2) The chief executive officer must report to the Board.

(3) The chief executive officer must be appointed for a term not exceeding

 five years, and may be reappointed for a term not exceeding five years

 subject to such conditions, including conditions relating to the payment of

 remuneration and allowances, as the Board may, in consultation with the

Minister, determine.’

12.        Divisions of Foundation

This was amended to read:

The Foundation may, after consultation with the Minister, establish or disestablish organisational divisions consistent with the objects of the Act.’

Mr Koornhof referred to the submission from the Auditor General (AG), and asked where amendments had to be made in the submission.

The Chairperson said that the meeting still had to get to that stage. She asked Ms Loots to introduce and lead the discussion on the submission from the AG.

Ms Loots located the submission in Section 18. The proposal in the Bill, as tabled, was that Section 18, from ’18. Audit, annual report..’ to the end ‘…ordinary session,’ should be deleted. It was deleted because there was standardisation for all the institutions governed by the Department, as well as to acknowledge that the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) placed certain responsibilities across board audits and reporting functions on public entities. The NRF was a Schedule 3 Part A PFMA national public entity, so the PFMA’s reporting and auditing responsibilities fell squarely on that Department. The AG had noted that there was a concern that the deletion of Section 18 would undermine auditing responsibility. She agreed with what the Department had indicated, with the understanding that the PFMA sufficiently covered the matter. She noted what the AG had stated, but did not see a concern as they were covered, and there were concurrent financing provisions in place that would not allow mismanagement by the NRF.

Mr Koornhof asked who would audit the NRF.

Dr Qhobela said that the Auditor General would audit the NRF.

Mr Lihle Hlophe, Senior Legal Officer, DST said that there was an obligation in terms of Section 55 of the PFMA, that the NRF had to submit to the AG.

Mr Koornhof asked if it was possible for the Legal Advisor to meet with the AG to discuss this matter and allay their fears, and then report back to the Committee.

The Chairperson said she was meeting with the AG at 15:30, so she would speak with them. The A-list would be prepared and a meeting would be held on March 28th to deal with the A-list.

She thanked everyone for the vigorous engagement on both the Quarterly Report and the Bill. A letter would be written that indicated that the matter had been dealt with, and that there was no need to present it to the House or to ask the permission of the House.

The Committee was pleased that the Minister had come to the meeting, especially given her very busy schedule. A special thanks was extended to the legal advisers at the meeting who had provided invaluable support and understanding.

The meeting was adjourned.

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