Science Week and Discussion and Policy Analysis of the Department of Science and Technology: briefing

Arts and Culture

05 August 2003
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

5 August 2003


Chairperson: Ms M Njobe (ANC)

Documents handed out:

Department of Science and Technology National Science Week Presentation
Department's Corporate Strategy 2003/4 - 2004/5 Document(awaited)
South Africa's Research and Development Strategy


The Department of Science and Technology made a presentation on its National Science Week (NSW) programme that aims to promote public understanding of science, engineering and technology. The Deputy Minister, Ms Buyelwa Sonjica, further briefed the Committee on the challenges and concluded that NSW should be a culmination of preceding awareness activities. Dr A Patterson, the DST Chief Operating Officer, briefed the Committee on policies within the Department, saying that one of its major challenges was the reduction in its budget after the country's transition to democracy, which had caused South Africa to fall slightly behind other countries.

The DST presentation was introduced by Dr A Patterson, DST Chief Operating Officer, and continued by Ms A Canca, General Manager of Science Missions and Human Capital.

National Science Week is an instrument to promote public understanding of science, engineering and technology (SET), raise its media profile and to develop an enthusiastic public culture. Since its inception in 2000, NSW had been run simultaneously in three provinces successively. In 2003 however, NSW was held simultaneously in all nine provinces. The activities of NSW include fixed and mobile interactive SET exhibits, art exhibitions and drama performances for educators, learners and the public.

The DST is the major funder although other support comes from the public and private sectors. In Kwazulu-Natal, Metrorail provided a train that carried interactive science exhibits to four areas throughout NSW 2003. Ms Canca reported that in 2003 there had been increased participation by provincial governments, including financial sponsorships. In 2003, the private sector contributed R600 000.

NSW 2004 will be directed to the youth by making science attractive, accessible and relevant; encouraging learners to consider science and mathematics as school subjects; increasing the number of matriculants, and encouraging enrolment for scientific and engineering degrees.

Dr M Cassiem (PJC) reminded the Department of a previously emphasised priority of mentors from disadvantaged communities assisting science students, and argued for reintroduction of this idea.
He also reminded the committee that, following a trip to Malaysia, it had been decided to follow the Malay example of a television channel and an internet server each dedicated to science and technology. The Department had also hoped to make a science publication available to schools to inform about career opportunities.

Dr Patterson reported that the Gauteng Government would provide computer infrastructure to schools and had taken on a computerised science programme called Plato to empower teachers - other provinces were likely to follow. The Department was also working with the University of the Western Cape to strengthen the open learning platform.

The Chairperson welcomed Mr Cassiem's suggestions and said insufficient use was being made of television and radio to promote SET. As an example, Zambian interschools science competitions were televised nationally.

Ms Sonjica responded that the Department was working closely with the SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAAASTA) which was seriously considering the merger of their two journals to target youth and increase public understanding of SET.

She said the Department would take the suggestion for science competitions further. Previous Science Olympiads had not received adequate publicity and televising them would be an interesting option.

As the Department has recognised the importance of employing SET radio journalists, they had contributed towards courses in radio journalism.

The Chairperson suggested awarding scholarships to top Matric science achievers as an incentive to enter the SET field. Ms Canca responded that the Department would discuss scholarships with the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The Chairperson asked if the Department shared any programmes with the DET that educated people of the potential dangers that accompanied the new technologies in newly electrified areas.

Ms H Mpaka (ANC) asked how raising interest among the youth would be done in rural and urban areas, and whether this would be done in co-operation with the DET.

Ms Canca responded that the Science and Youth Directorate was focussing on:
(1) inter-school activities where they partnered with the Department of Education and Training around secondary school curricula in mathematics and science.
(2) out-of-school activities. These include the NSW activities and Science and Art Centres, of which there is a large one in each province that supported other mobile units. In almost every province, the MEC for Education has supported the events by laying on the transport.

As the DST does not have a provincial structure, with the aid of SAAASTA, they find small companies who do the complete set up of exhibitions and all the publicity.

Dr Patterson stated that the HSRC had undertaken research on behalf of the Department on after-school programmes offering SET and maths, and preliminary results suggest that there are already 76 000 learners taking extra tuition in these subjects. These figures were focused in urban areas and the Department needed to provide such services in rural areas.

Prof Mohamed asked about public participation at Science Week events. He mentioned that in countries like Malaysia, India and China, centres of excellence were set up at schools for those students who excelled in the sciences. In South Africa, this practice had been decided against to avoid discrimination.

Ms Canca informed the Committee that in 2003, NSW was celebrated simultaneously in all nine provinces and therefore attendance had multiplied considerably.

Dr Patterson responded that the Department allowed each province to decide on pertinent activities. For instance, the Northern Cape had exhibited the processes of the diamond industry and aspects of astronomy. Another province had focused on police activities like fingerprinting techniques and bomb disposal. Mpumalanga Province had demonstrated principals of fermentation and the making of wine. The Department was especially grateful to SASOL engineers who had dedicated a week to engage with learners in Mpumalanga.

Ms Canca informed the Committee that responsibility for the NSW was being moved to the Science and Youth Directorate.

Dr Patterson informed the Committee that the Department was aware it had not made sufficient efforts to engage public interest in SET. The said the Department had had a number of collaborations with the SABC but with limited interaction. As the budget allocation improved, more collaboration would follow.

Evidence suggested a lack of career-based information available to schools. The Department has included provisions in its budget request 2004 to provide for the availability of such information.

Dr Patterson reported that the Department's relationship with the DET was improving. It was important for the two departments to work closely together to ensure a more coherent approach. To address apartheid SET inequities, certain schools in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal had started SET assistance programmes with lesser-resourced schools.

Mr Cassiem suggested the following:
(1) that the Department annually submit to the Committee a photographic album on the year's achievements.
(2) the Science publication should be handy and appealing to young people.
(3) he pledged the support of the Portfolio Committee to the Department.

Dr Patterson welcomed the Committee's support, adding that the Department would strongly motivate their budget request to Treasury.

Prof Mohamed felt that government somehow needed to address the huge matriculant unemployment statistics. It would be useful if they could be channelled into the SET fields.

The Chairperson agreed, adding that it was distressing to see students receiving 'A' aggregates for science at schools with no laboratories. It would be interesting to see research on what happens to those students.

Ms A van Wyk stated it was important to realise that SET was not meant only for scientists highly trained in academia as artisans were also technologists, as were people in the intermediate technologies.

The Chairperson said that even people engaging in the intermediate technologies need to be practically empowered to become self-employed, particularly in rural areas.

Ms Sonjica reported that the DST had considered establishing offices in the provinces.

She confirmed that the lack of career guidance in schools needed to be addressed, especially in the previously disadvantaged areas, in order to "demystify" SET. Highly capable children in rural areas were limited because their schools lacked the necessary infrastructure and facilities.

There are a number of initiatives in terms of educating learners on their options. The DET has programmes to empower teachers. A programme aimed at identifying the skills of people in the public service showed that, based on people's skills, they were improperly matched to jobs. This showed the need for greater co-ordination with the Labour Department.

With regard to the NSW, she felt it should be the culmination of number of public programmes and also be followed up with other programmes to sustain interest.

Ms Sonjica concluded that the Department should remain in contact with the Portfolio Committee. Should they require workshops on any specific issues, the Department would avail itself.

Ms van Wyk said that an important workshop had been held by the CSIR on sustainable housing. The latter often involved the use of indigenous knowledge and young people could be drawn in. The Committee expressed interest in attending such a workshop.

Briefing on Policy Analysis
Dr Patterson stated that one challenge was the reduced financial spend on science, engineering and technology since the dismantling of apartheid. Presently, about 0.7% of the GDP is spent on SET, meaning that SA has fallen behind its trading partners who are spending about 2%. He explained that for every rand spent, 50 cents went to human resources, between 20 and 30 cents to running costs, 15 cents to equipment, and the balance went to management and administrative activities. This year saw an increase in the budget.
Regarding human resources, the dominantly white, ageing workforce continued to be a feature.

The Department had fully financed the National Biotechnology Strategy for 2003.

With regard to funding, there has been a trend by big business to withdraw funding. However, SASOL's contributions had doubled in the last four years. Young firms within the private sector remained the dominant contributors with mainly short-term investments. Government needed to make long-term investments.

Dr Patterson reported that South Africa had moved onto a very proactive footing in international relations which would help to strengthen NEPAD initiatives.

Mr Cassiem stated that South Africa should focus on how biotechnology could benefit ordinary rural women, and how quickly they could be brought into the equation.

The Chairperson said much indigenous knowledge exists within food technology which must be protected.

Dr Patterson confirmed it was extremely important to ensure that biotechnology does not benefit only a small segment of society. They had decided to create a fourth national centre for plant biotechnology, with a focus on developing crops to specifically benefit rural women, and to create factory capacity in rural areas for plant biotechnology. It was imperative to show how SET could translate into actual benefits.

With regard to international relations, the Chairperson asked if the Department had a vision for NEPAD.

Prof Mohamed asked if the Department had received more money in its budget allocation than previous years. Furthermore, he mentioned that in South Africa, diamond sorting was done by hand which made it more unreliable than with foreign computerised systems. The benefits of acquiring computerised machinery could be outweighed by additional unemployment.

Dr Patterson responded that for the current financial year, the Department had received new resources totalling R250 million. Over the next three years, they would receive R1 billion from Treasury. The Department's spend is about R2 billion per year. They would approach Treasury with another substantial request this year in which they would motivate SET as a major priority. Top priorities under SET would be the establishment of centres of excellence; the presentation of youth programmes; improving technology transfers, and human resources.

Dr Patterson said that it was a function of the DST to research the effects of new technologies on employment and to establish robust coping strategies. Historically, companies did not invest much in training people and still preferred to use machines.

Prof Mohamed stated that although it was not yet universal practice to acknowledge the source of indigenous knowledge, indigenous people should partner with academics in publications.

Dr Patterson reported that although South Africans are 80% on par with the rest of the world in making discoveries, they are 1% effective in terms of patenting and securing intellectual property. About 106 patents are being secured per year in South Africa.

The Department reported that Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa are interested in making use of satellite technology to address poverty and other issues. The African Laser Centre is developing the use of lasers for medical, crop and other applications in conjunction with countries like Egypt and Ghana. It is hoped that at least 33 other countries will be involved in the NEPAD ministerial. The Minister has addressed all the African ambassadors on the matter. They would like to achieve the politically difficult goal of making SET applicable for the entire continent.

The Chairperson asked if the Department worked with universities assince she was aware of one university that was considering the use of indigenous knowledge.

Dr Patterson responded that the Department planned to increasingly include tertiary institutions and Science Councils and supported the inclusion of indigenous knowledge into curricula development.

The meeting was adjourned.



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