Three entities of the Department of Science and Technology briefed the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology on their Annual Performance Plans for the 2018/19 financial period.
The National Research Foundation reported its transformation agenda is focusing on equity profiles of the South African research workforce by improving the representivity of active and established researchers; knowledge enterprise by defining the Foundation’s agenda and establishing a Research Excellence Framework to advance research excellence for impact; relationship between science and society by developing a portfolio of meaningful science engagement indicators; and building a diverse and fully inclusive learning organisation like National Research Foundation by driving improved gender composition at senior leadership levels, especially for black females.
Concerted efforts to improve support for female researchers are being undertaken. The value of the Foundation’s grants is modest and are decreasing annually by an average of 3.3% in real terms, and a review of resource allocation for emerging and established researchers is urgently required. During the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework period, the Foundation would intensify the promotion, support, and advancement of research excellence through its various interventions, including the development of policies, programmes, and instruments to develop and support early career researchers to become internationally acclaimed researchers and scholars over time. Growth between 2017/18 and 2020/21 is seen to be stagnant or declining in real terms and this would impact on the student and researcher numbers and average grant sizes.
The National Advisory Council on Innovation reported its specific challenges are around the production and utilisation of advice. It appears Cabinet does not see the potential for socio-economic development offered by emerging innovations. The composition and renewal of the Council is presenting a challenge. Since 2014, some members have resigned and these resignations have affected the Council negatively. The entity also has to ensure better communication and knowledge management. There has been a delay in the finalisation of the new organogram in order to provide job descriptions because there are challenges regarding staff capability and organisational capacity to meet increasing demands.
Despite the challenges, the entity indicated it would continue to implement both the legislative mandate and Ministerial assignments and align Strategic Plans and Annual Performance Plans with the National Development Plan and Department of Science and Technology strategic plan. The system would focus on deepening and consolidating engagements with various NSI actors in order to improve quality, relevance and uptake of advice, and strengthening planning, analytical and Monitoring and Evaluation capabilities. The entity would continue to reposition itself with better communication and knowledge management and seize opportunities of digitisation and collaboration with the Department.
The Human Science Research Council indicated it is contributing to the development of a programme of work dealing with poverty and inequality by conducting research, analysing and publishing data, identifying priorities, and proposing or reviewing possible interventions that aim to address developmental challenges affecting marginalised or vulnerable groups in SA and elsewhere in Africa, through knowledge and research partnerships.
The entity reported it is having difficulties to bring in researchers from Africa to join the Council, particularly with the Department of Home Affairs, visas and work permits. It is also a challenge for universities to get all these necessary documents in time. As a result, they lose out. In terms of institutional transformation, it is struggling though it is making very slow progress. The fact is, it should be getting better, but it is not. The entity is also struggling to meet the target of having 50% of female researchers. Despite its efforts to recruit and retain them, it continues to fall short
Members wanted to know how the National Research Foundation is going to make it flexible to attract scientists in the long run in order to keep the Institution sustainable; asked why a great workforce is not absorbed or is decreasing when it comes to maths and science graduates; wanted to find out what the Foundation is doing with Information Communication Technology, because most learners need it in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; wanted to establish if there are interventions from Foundation for PhD students it funds but who cannot pass or complete their studies; and asked for clarity between the 40% post-doctoral researcher support and the 15% researchers supported in emerging research.
Members remarked they had a feeling that when they listen to people talking of National Advisory Council on Innovation, they are negative about it and say it does not know what it is doing and they asked if the entity is inward looking; commended the entity for its initiatives to encourage other firms to absorb black researchers with masters and doctoral degrees; wanted to establish the number of advices that saw the light of day that entity has given to the Minister and Cabinet; and asked how many vacancies the entity had.
From the Human Sciences Research Council they asked for clarity on why the salary budget of 52% is bigger than that of projects to be handled; enquired if the Council was not thinking of repositioning itself because it was doing good work, but people do not know about it; wanted to establish how different the transformation governance of the Council is from other entities because all the entities are talking of transformation governance; wanted to find out what makes it difficult to retain black female researchers and maintain gender balance; and wanted to know the number of doctoral and post-doctoral students funded by the government.
Dr Molapo Qhobela, CEO, NRF, informed the Committee the NRF transformation agenda is focusing on equity profiles of the South African research workforce by improving the representivity of active and established researchers; knowledge enterprise by defining the NRF agenda and establishing a Research Excellence Framework to advance research excellence for impact; relationship between science and society by developing a portfolio of meaningful science engagement indicators; and building a diverse and fully inclusive learning organisation like NRF by driving improved gender composition at senior leadership levels, especially for black females.
He enlightened the Committee about the NRF’s efforts on human capacity development. The total number of students is declining due to the decrease in scarce skills funding and the phase-out of the Department of Trade and Industries (dti) Technology for Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP) funding. Proposed revisions to funding post-graduate students might lead to further revision of targets, including the increased number of black doctoral graduates. For student funding, the policy recommends that financially needy students would be funded without interruption for studies completed within regulation time at Total Cost of Study. All high academic achievers who have an interest to pursue post-graduate studies up to the doctoral degree within regulation time would be funded without interruption. The policy further recommends the bursaries to be awarded should be aligned to national priorities, vulnerable disciplines, and fields important for socio-economic development.
Concerted efforts to improve support for female researchers are being undertaken. The value of the NRF grants is modest and are decreasing annually by an average of 3.3% in real terms, and a review of resource allocation for emerging and established researchers is urgently required. During the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) period, the NRF would intensify the promotion, support, and advancement of research excellence through its various interventions, including the development of policies, programmes, and instruments to develop and support early career researchers to become internationally acclaimed researchers and scholars over time. Growth between 2017/18 and 2020/21 is seen to be stagnant or declining in real terms and this would impact on the student and researcher numbers and average grant sizes.
Dr Qhobela further spoke about commitments towards the provision of necessary research infrastructure. The MTEF investment is at R295.4 million. No new calls for equipment grants under either the National Equipment Programme (NEP) or SRE were made in the 2017/18 financial year for award during 2018/19. Commitments already made for CHRTEM, the national equipment database, and museum support were affected. KPI targets for the MTEF period have been reduced. The target for the number of users of equipment was reduced by 300 and 400 for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 financial years, respectively. Further reductions are likely due to unpredictable financial commitments.
With regard to astronomy and geosciences, the SALT scientific and sustainability plan is being finalised. There is substantive work done on the establishment of SA Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) as a radio astronomical observatory, and the operationalisation of the MeerKat as a functioning science platform is in place. On biodiversity and environmental sciences, there is a proposed declaration of SA Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) as a National Research Facility, and the procurement of an additional research vessel for the SA Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) is on-going. The acquisition of the 70Mev Cyclotron for iThemba LABS would, amongst other things, allow the facility to conduct transformational science and break new ground in understanding the synthesis of chemical elements in the universe, nuclear processes in supernovae and neutron stars; and medical diagnosis and treatment of between 9000 and 11 000 patients per annum.
In his conclusion, Dr Qhobela stated the programme on supporting and promoting public awareness of and engagement with science is focusing on learner performance, more targeted participation by educators and learners, providing longer term interventions, and tracking post matric. It needs appropriate and sustainable funding strategy in order to increase engagement by scientific community and visibility of SA research, and improve system wide coordination.
(Tables and graphs were shown to illustrate financial management and MTEF budget allocation; public awareness and engagement with science; commitments towards creation of knowledge, innovation and development; provision of research infrastructure; and human capacity development)
Dr Mlungisi Cele, Acting CEO: NACI, briefed the Committee on the national and global challenges and opportunities. National challenges are around the sluggish economy-unemployment; poverty and inequality; water scarcity and food security; and expansion and transformation of human resources for STI (Science Technology Innovation).
Globally, the challenge is around the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitisation facilitated by the growth of mobile telecommunications and the rapid uptake of data and sensors in both advanced and emerging economies. Globalisation and growing complexity of STI require greater interdisciplinary cooperation. The bridging of science/engineering and social sciences and humanities in the education system is also proving to be a challenge.
NACI’s specific challenges are around the production and utilisation of advice. It appears Cabinet does not see the potential for socio-economic development offered by emerging innovations. The composition and renewal of the Council is presenting a challenge. Since 2014, some members have resigned and these resignations have affected the Council negatively. The entity also has to ensure better communication and knowledge management. There has been a delay in the finalisation of the new organogram in order to provide job descriptions because there are challenges regarding staff capability and organisational capacity to meet increasing demands.
Dr Cele further briefed the Committee on the selected medium-term initiatives. The development of the STI decadal plan framework is to build capacity for about 50 young researchers/policy makers/analysts/planners, and to ensure the foresight exercise is undertaken. The entity has provided training to 30 people from government and entities on foresight exercise. The development of the STI data and information portal is going to document user experiences, develop business case for up-scaling, and would comprise a technical team that is made up of diverse stakeholders, including DST entities. The development of the NSI monitoring and evaluation framework and system is going to be a collaboration with SciTIP and this would lead to the preliminary draft of the M&E framework.
He said some of the following, amongst others, would be proposed areas of advice:
Grade 12 mathematics and science learner performance. Support has been secured from the Department of Basic Education.
Uptake of locally produced technologies.
Development of bio-economy strategy measurement framework. Support secured from the Ministry.
Absorption of black researchers with master’s and doctoral degrees by firms
Evaluation of sector innovation fund.
Self-evaluation and external evaluation or institutional review.
Deepen existing and build new networks and participate in local, continental and international forums in order to learn and share.
Dr Cele concluded that the NACI would continue to implement both the legislative mandate and Ministerial assignments and align Strategic Plans and Annual Performance Plans with the NDP and DST strategic plan. The system would focus on deepening and consolidating engagements with various NSI actors in order to improve quality, relevance and uptake of advice, and strengthening planning, analytical and M&E capabilities. The entity would continue to reposition itself and better communication and knowledge management and seize opportunities of digitisation and collaboration with the DST.
(A table was shown to illustrate expenditure estimates)
Prof Crain Soudien, CEO: HSRC, stated the HSRC is advancing excellence in social sciences and humanities for public use by continuing to disseminate research results through scientific publications, seminars and more popular media. In this way it is generating global knowledge generation and dissemination.
He reported the HSRC is contributing to the development of a programme of work dealing with poverty and inequality by conducting research, analysing and publishing data, identifying priorities, and proposing or reviewing possible interventions that aim to address developmental challenges affecting marginalised or vulnerable groups in SA and elsewhere in Africa, through knowledge and research partnerships.
Prof Soudien added they are having difficulties to bring in researchers from Africa to join the HSRC, particularly with the Department of Home Affairs, visas and work permits. It is also a challenge for universities to get all these necessary documents in time. As a result, they lose out.
The HSRC is exceeding targets when it comes to providing opportunities for masters’ and doctoral candidates as well as post-doctoral fellows to conduct research at the HSRC in order to grow an echelon of suitably qualified and experienced researchers. This is contributing to the growing awareness of findings, approaches and career opportunities in social sciences and humanities research amongst members of the public, students, scholars, and decision-makers.
The HSRC is doing lots of surveys and this data is preserved and made available for further analysis and acknowledgement in publications. However, the challenge is on putting the data in forms the public might be able to understand. They are not doing too badly because they have tried to meet the targets.
In terms of institutional transformation, the HSRC is struggling though it is making a very slow progress. The fact is, it should be getting better, but it is not. The entity is struggling also to meet the target of having 50% of female researchers. It continues to fall short.
Prof Leickness Simbayi, Deputy CEO for Research: HSRC, reported they have made adjustments to some of their strategic oriented goals for 2018/19. The number of policy briefs produced by the HSRC researchers and published by HSRC during the period under review stood at 10. 35 research trainees enrolled in Master’s programme have been appointed at the HSRC while the number of post-doctoral fellows appointed is 20.
10 public dialogues on poverty and inequality have been hosted. 4 HSRC review publications have been produced. 14 scholarly books have been published. 8 peer-reviewed journal articles by HSRC author/s with at least 10 citations listed within 5 years from publication have been produced. The HSRC is looking at the impact of these articles.
During the reporting period, the HSRC has actively collaborated with 5 HDIs, and 10 African research fellows were hosted by the HSRC. The entity is trying to implement short-term visits where they would come and go and long-term visits where they would stay for 3 to 5 years. There are 10 preserved datasets. This has been reduced because people download only 3 to 5 in the main. So, there is no need to upload lots of data. The percentage of South African senior researchers who are African is 56% while that of senior researchers who are female is 50%. The entity is, however, not ignoring other groups like Indians, Coloureds, etc, but it just indicates how the Africans are doing.
Prof Simbayi, regarding risks and challenges, stated the area of concern is the attraction and retention of critical skills which is impacting on deliverables and performance targets. There is non-compliance with Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) regulations with regard to the Pretoria building; and cyber security is proving to be a threat.
(Tables and graphs were shown to illustrate seminars hosted; peer reviewed journal articles; research trainees appointed; curated datasets; institutional transformation; and budget expenditure)
Ms C King (DA) wanted to know how the NRF is going to make it flexible to attract scientists in the long run in order to keep the institution sustainable. She asked why a great workforce is not absorbed or is decreasing when it comes to maths and science graduates. She asked what the NRF is doing with ICT because most learners need it in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Dr Beverly Damonse, Director for Science Engagement: NRF, on attracting scientists, stated that quantitatively they are not reaching the numbers because they are not dealing with schools directly. The NRF plays outside the school system to attract interest and to give support to those interested in science, technology and maths. The NRF and DST do support the schools with the probability that learners would choose science and technology at university. They provide a supportive environment that promotes interest in maths, technology and science.
Dr Bishen Singh, CFO: NRF, stated there are two big projects on sustainability. There are short-term things that could be achieved quickly like administration efficiency. Then there are long-term issues that look at resourcing model. They look at how they split the money they receive in terms of impact efficiency, economies of scale, etc.
Dr Qhobela, regarding decreasing absorption, explained the NRF serves the country and the students they fund are for the entire system, not for the NRF. The students end up being researchers, vice-chancellors, etc. The NRF is able to track young people it has touched. Students are not given bursaries to work for the NRF. 35% of doctoral graduates of SA are funded by the NRF. The pass rate is good and it ensures that its students pass.
Dr Gansen Pillay, Deputy CEO of RISA: NRF, stated a huge investment is being done in the area of ICT. The Sol Plaatjie University offers big data studies and it is the first university in SA to do that.
Mr N Koornhof (ANC) wanted to find out if the allocation of 18% of the budget to arts and humanities is not too high because they are not really sciences. He asked if the NRF has a PR programme and budget to make science sexy. He further wanted to know how much of the budget goes to salaries.
Dr Loyiso Nongxa, NRF Chairperson, elaborated the NRF was formed to bring together the sciences and humanities. The society is faced with social challenges like poverty, inequality, etc. For instance, when people think of mining, they think of mining engineering, but not about labour matters. Scientists who do not understand the social implications of what they do are dangerous scientists.
Dr Damonse explained there has been a lot of engagement around the PR campaign. They have recognised it is necessary to profile SA's role in science and tell positive stories of what is done in SA. There have been programmes on TV and magazines that have been doing public relations, but that has ended because of budget constraints. Entities are encouraged to spend not less than 4% of their budget on science engagement related matters like PR, media, and awareness campaigns.
Mr Patrick Thompson, Group Executive: Human Resources: NRF, regarding salaries, stated the previous board and the current board are always guiding against big expenditure on salaries. It was agreed in 2009 that the NRF not to spend more than 20% of its income on salaries. Over the years, it has been between 18% and 19%.
Ms A Tuck (ANC) wanted to establish if the NRF had projects for drought-stricken provinces.
Dr Qhobela indicated they have got an enormous task regarding water. The NRF scientists, for example, are talking to the City of Cape Town about ground water. There is research being done on sustainability of water. There is a lot of investment on water security, not only for SA but for other countries as well.
Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) asked when the term of the current board is going to end and be advertised. She also wanted to know if there are interventions from NRF for PhD students it funds but who cannot pass or complete their studies. She asked if it interviews them on why they are struggling because once the relationship between the promoter and student is broken, the student would never pass. She then wanted to know if there are any plans in place for the provision of internships.
Dr Nongxa stated that PhD completion in SA is a big challenge. Challenges are around student-supervisor relations, funding, etc. Dr Pillay added that the success rate of students funded by the NRF is 100%. Those that do not complete get an extension on their fourth year. With regard to internships, students must have a primary degree. The NRF puts out advertisements so that students could apply to pursue higher degrees. To date, the NRF has 1500 interns. Some are absorbed within the NRF and others are placed in other companies.
Ms N Ndongeni (ANC) asked how many students are absorbed by the NRF every year.
Dr Nongxa said they are producing PhDs for the entire system, not for the academia only. There is a report that states there are financial companies that employ PhDs while some are still circumspect, claiming the PhDs are full of theory. There is a need to think of creative ways of producing PhDs. That is why they are encouraged to pursue multi-disciplinary research for their PhD studies.
Ms A Mfulo (ANC) asked for clarity between the 40% post-doctoral researcher support and the 15% researchers supported in emerging research.
Dr Pillay explained emerging researchers are outside people who work in SA's institution and are supported so that they deliver good to our students. These researchers mostly come from the African continent. The 40% support is given to post-doctoral researchers so that the country is not parochial and to bring new perspectives in SA. These researchers come from the different corners of the world.
Mr Koornhof said he had a feeling that when he listens to people talking about NACI, they are negative about it and say it does not know what it is doing. He asked if NACI is inward looking.
Dr Cele elaborated that NACI has not been allowed to be what it is supposed to be. That is why they are constantly improving. The main challenge is around communication to people they work with. When they launched the indicators booklet, they received applauds and many institutions, entities and government departments are currently using the work of NACI. Most people, he said, do not want to acknowledge the work NACI is doing. The entity took a conscious decision not to do investigative work. Work is done by other entities, but NACI would do an analysis and give advice.
Ms Zanele Monnakgotla, NACI Council Member, added that marketing and awareness campaigns have proved to be a challenge. If these were done, NACI would not have been in bad books in terms of perceptions by the public and other entities. Another challenge is that NACI is part of DST. Innovation is broader than science and technology. Currently, they are dealing with economic development matters and other areas, and innovation is supposed to cut across government departments so that people understand what it is supposed to be. She further stated NACI is not inward looking at all, but it is only that marketing is not done on what NACI is doing.
Ms Tuck asked why there is an acting CEO.
Ms Monnakgotla explained that the process of appointing a CEO has begun but was delayed because at the beginning the process was not done properly. There was no compliance with the Act. That is why the process was withdrawn. It is hoped the new Minister would start the new process.
Dr Thembekwayo said she is concerned about the degree of certainty regarding the end of the term of the Council. She also commended NACI for its initiatives to encourage other firms to absorb black researchers with masters and doctoral degrees. She indicated there is no need to work in compartments when deciding about the placement of science graduates in the country. It is good for the entity to do self-evaluation or institutional review in order to check on its strengths and weaknesses so that these could be handed over to those taking over.
Dr Cele elaborated they are trying to look at how the system could be expanded to ensure there is an increase in the uptake of black science graduates with Masters and PhDs, which is more than that of whites, but the absorption of blacks in the public and private sector is very small and that of whites is big. Self-evaluation re-affirms what NACI is doing.
Ms King wanted to establish about the number of advices that saw the light of the day that NACI has given to the Minister and Cabinet.
Dr Cele indicated they have provided a range of advices to the Minister and Cabinet. A document is available from the DST which describes the number of advices submitted, approved, and rejected. The entity needs to look at the advices it has given to the government and scrutinise why some got approved and other were rejected.
Ms Monnakgotla added there is an advice that was given to the Minister of Energy on how best to use energy in SA. The DST uses these advices, but it does not report to NACI of where it used them. The coordination between the DST and NACI is not good and there is a need to improve on it.
Mr Paul Steenkamp, NACI Council Member, pointed out that the job of giving advice is a thankless one because you sometimes give advice which your client feels reflects badly on them. At other times, the advice is about change management where the client has to do things differently and change things that have been done the same way over a long period completely instead of modifying or changing a little bit here and there.
Ms Ndongeni asked how many vacancies there were within NACI.
Dr Cele explained the only two vacancies that are there are for the deputy and assistant director who have resigned recently. Temporary people have been given contracts of 8 to 12 months. They are looking at finalising the new organogram in order to know the number of vacancies to be created and their levels. When they look at institutions comparable to NACI globally, people would see that NACI has advanced. There are companies in Russia, Japan, and South Korea that are doing foresight exercise and have got staff compliment of 60 to 100 people. The institutional capacity of NACI is not where it is supposed to be.
Ms Tuck asked for clarity on why the salary budget of 52% is bigger than that of projects to be handled.
Ms Crystal Abdol, Group Executive for Shared Services/CFO: HSRC stated that researchers are the core business. Their capital is in the people they employ. Even when you look globally, you'll find that commerce now employs social scientists. There is a small pool of people and everybody is competing for this small unit of people. The interns are paid at top-end. People are the machines at HSRC. The 52% comprises senior researchers, chief directors, accommodation for the researchers, etc.
Dr A Lotriet (DA) was concerned about the problem of attracting young, black PhD graduates and retaining them. As a result, NACI is going to do a research on the lack of absorption of black researchers in the private sector. She also commented that people do not know what institutions like the HSRC are doing. There is a lack of communication and awareness campaigns.
Prof Soudien explained it would be useful to make everybody understand what it means to bring a new person to their organisation. The difficulty here is that the number of young people progressing from honours across disciplines to doctoral is factional. He exemplified with history which most people would think is easy to pursue. He stated there are very few black graduates taking it at post graduate level. He asked if all of them have to be taken. He reasoned there are structural problems that need to be sorted out first. For instance, you need to fix health problems like stunting, transport (for kids to easily go to school), engagement with the higher education, etc. Seeing that things are poorly coordinated, it is going to be difficult to sort out these structural problems. He said they tried to involve the civic society, private sector, and public sector to try to solve this problem, but there is still a long way to go.
Dr Thembekwayo wanted to establish how different the transformation governance of the HSRC from other entities because all the entities are talking of transformation governance. She further wanted to find out what makes it difficult to retain black female researchers and maintain gender balance.
An HR executive from the HSRC indicated the root of the problem is the pipeline until such time as we get young, black females stay at the university and continue to post-graduate. Economic matters force people to find work after the primary degree and then come back to study part-time for post graduate programmes. The resources are not there. The NRF only funds 10% of post-graduates in the system. If you are with NRF as a researcher, you do not have to choose your money like the HSRC one.
Ms Ndongeni wanted to find out why there are audited and unaudited targets for March 2017 and December 2017, respectively. She also wanted to know the number of doctoral and post-doctoral students funded by the government.
An HR executive from the HSRC said the December 2017 unaudited statements would be audited end of March 2018. She further indicated it is difficult to find figures of doctoral and post-doctoral students funded by the government because the lack of coordination makes planning very difficult.
Ms King asked for clarity on the funding model.
An HR executive from the HSRC stated they have got a hybrid model and money coming from outside. They are busy reviewing the business in addition to the hybrid model. She also noted that funding is linked to a particular partner. Deviations are communicated with Treasury. Available funding is limited to fix the gaps and minimise the risks.
The Chairperson asked for clarity on the aging infrastructure in Pretoria. She also enquired if the HSRC was not thinking of repositioning itself because it was doing good work, but people do not know about it.
Prof Simbayi indicated they have been looking at both the visibility and promotion of the work of the HSRC. They have been in conversation with the previous Minister. They are thinking of convening many public dialogues and trying to do things differently. The issue is around finding ways of taking what we do through the forums where people are.
An HR executive from the HSRC stated that investigation is continuing to find an alternative accommodation or building, but nothing has been finalised yet.
Ms Mfulo wanted to find out what the impact of the seminars is; and what the plan is regarding institutional transformation because there is a challenge to get more female researchers.
Prof Simbayi explained that some of the seminars are organised jointly with the DST while others with stakeholders on the policy briefs. They are now trying to invite policy-makers to be in the same room with the researchers. With regard to transformation, black Africans are the majority in research and this includes females as well. The problem is in leadership. The challenge is that some black graduates are wanted only to be data collectors because the senior researchers are white guys of good standing.
The meeting was adjourned.
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