National Research Foundation Amendment Bill: Department briefing, with Minister

NCOP Public Enterprises and Communication

31 October 2018
Chairperson: Ms E Prins (ANC, Western Cape)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee received a briefing from the Department of Science and Technology on the National Research Foundation Amendment Bill [B23B-2017]. In her preliminary remarks, the Minister of Science and Technology said the bill was trying to achieve a seamless interaction between and a clarification of the roles of the Minister, the Department, and the entity. Further, she stated that the bill did not give her too much power as alleged in submissions, as a Minister needed to determine policy and be held accountable.

The Department said the bill will contribute to national development by supporting government priorities through promoting research in all fields of science by allowing the Minister to issue policy guidelines.

Substantive amendments were that the Minister would have the power to issue policy guidelines. The National Research Foundation would be enabled to incubate units that have a potential to become national research facilities. The Minister would be empowered to withdraw the determination of a national research facility or to transfer the national research facility from the NRF to another organ of state. The Minister would be able to declare an institution as a research institution and eligible to receive funding from the NRF.  Intellectual property rights emanating from a study or research funded by the NRF would be regulated in terms of the Intellectual Property Rights Act and other legislation.

The Department stated that submissions from seven organisations were received on the Bill. Their concerns were that the bill sought to impact operations of existing science councils and universities directly or indirectly which may result in these institutions being stripped of some of their core infrastructure; the emphasis on alignment with the national priorities might prove challenging as priorities can change rapidly, while Research and Development were long-term term activities; the Bill allowed the Minister to interact directly with the NRF, and not through the Board; the Minister was being given more powers regarding the National Research Facilities (NFs); the Minister was empowered to issue policy guidelines; Consideration should be given to include inter- and  trans-disciplinary research instead of just multi-disciplinary research; the Minister was being given extensive decision making powers. The Department rejected most of the comments highlighting the Minister is a member of Parliament and is the Executive Authority, and already has powers to issue national policy; the Bill is codifying that.

Members raised questions around the Minister’s ability to declare an institution as a research institution or to withdraw from it and whether the research from these institutions was covered under the Act. Members wanted to know if making explicit the promotion of government priorities would mean only supporting research based on government policies or would there be leeway to support research facilities whether they were supporting government priorities or not. Members asked what the implications of a shrinking national budget were for the activities of the DST and NRF. Members asked how research would affect the average person in deep, rural areas. Members supported the mandate to promote science

The Chairperson said that the meeting scheduled for the following week would not take place as the Committee had decided to let the advertisement and call for submissions continue until 9 November and the bill would next be dealt with after that date on 14 November.

Meeting report

Remarks by Minister

Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Minister of Science and Technology, said she did not believe the National Research Foundation Amendment Bill was a complicated bill. It was trying to achieve a seamless interaction and a clarification of the roles of the Minister, the Department and the entity. She said there will be a third bill before the Committee - the Science and Technology bill - by the end of the financial year. She did not believe that too much power was being given to the Minister as alleged in the submissions, as a Minister needed to determine policy and be held accountable.

The Chairperson apologised to the Minister for not attending a recent conference because Parliament had not approved that the whole Committee attend and only two Committee representatives attended.

The Minister said she would forward the documents of the conference and there would be a summit on 9 November.

At this point the Minister left.

Briefing by Department of Science and Technology (DST)

 

Mr Thomas auf der Heyde, DDG: Research Development and Support, DST, stated that the following strategic considerations led to the amendment of the Act:

-Paucity of the NRF Act on determination of national research and funding policy by the Minister;

-Silence in the NRF mandate on functions that relate to supporting and promoting public awareness of, and engagement, with science;

-Lack of clarity in the Minister’s role on the determination of national research facilities as well as the withdrawal of such determination;

-Provision to the Minister of powers to declare research institutions that can participate in NRF funding programmes; and

-Exclusion of technology transfer and IP, to distinguish NRF from TIA.

-Provide further clarification on functions of NRF.

The object of the Foundation is to contribute to national development by:

-Supporting and promoting research and human capital development, through funding and the provision of necessary infrastructure, in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology, including humanities, social sciences and indigenous knowledge;

-Developing, supporting and maintaining national research facilities;

-Supporting and promoting public awareness of, and engagement with science; and

-Promoting the development and maintenance of the national science system and supporting government priorities.

He gave an overview of the substantive amendments and the benefit / impact of the amendment:

-Power of the Minister to determine relevant policies for research and funding at national level and issue policy guidelines in respect of the Foundation's objectives (Section 3A.).

-Inclusion of the function of the Foundation to coordinate science engagement activities in the NRF mandate (Section 4 - subsection of paragraph (n)).

-The power of the Minister to determine, withdraw and transfer a national research facility (Section 5).

-The power of the Minister to declare an institution conducting research, as eligible to receive funding from the Foundation (Section 5A.).

-The alignment of the NRF Act with other Acts which are meant to protect knowledge emanating from public funded research (Section 19).

-Clarification of NRF functions

The Bill was published in the Government Gazette for public comment in August 2016. In addition to this publication, the DST issued letters to all universities and science councils, informing the institutions about the publication of the Bill and requesting written comments on the amendments.

On closing of the call for comment, submissions from seven organisations were received; namely, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), University of the Witwatersrand, Universities South Africa (USAf), Central University of Technology (CUT), Mintek, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), and the NRF

The ARC submitted that the Bill seeks to impact operations of existing science councils and universities directly or indirectly. This may result in these institutions being stripped of some of their core infrastructure. This view was not accepted as the Bill only empowers the NRF to oversee infrastructure that has been declared as national research facilities by the Minister, but not those under the science councils and universities.

USAf submitted that the Minister is being given more powers regarding the National Research Facilities (NFs). This comment was rejected as the Bill defines a NF, and codifies the process to be followed for determination as a NF. The power to determine a NF vested with the Minister all along.

The HSRC argued that the Minister is being given extensive decision making powers and that the Department should ensure alignment of the science engagement definitions and functions with those in the Science Engagement Strategy. The first comment was not accept because the Minister already has powers to issue national policy, the Bill is codifying that. The later comment was accepted.

Further, stakeholders also submitted commendations:

-the tightening of financial control through the provision for the NRF to comply with the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA);

-strengthening of institutional oversight and governance, and powers given to the Minister to issue national research policy; 

-promotion of inter- and trans-disciplinary research, and collaboration;

-clarification of concepts and processes; and

-the elevation of social sciences and humanities research

Discussion

Mr O Sefako (North West, ANC) felt that the use of the word ‘may after consultations…’ in section 4 should be given a stronger emphasis and perhaps ‘may’ should be replaced with ‘must’.

On the Minister being able to declare an institution as a research institution, Ms C Labuschagne (DA, Western Cape) asked if the research from these institutions is covered under the Act. She felt that it was great that the mandate would include promoting science and wanted a presentation on when this was being done by the NRF. In s4, on the benefit of seeing what the Colabs make, she said it would be interesting to see how this was rolled out. On promoting government priorities, she wanted to know if making it explicit, would mean only supporting research based on government policies or would there be leeway to support research facilities whether they were supporting government priorities or not. Was there a percentage attached to the funding that had to be government supported? On the power of the Minister to withdraw from national research facilities, she asked if that would be based on time or on a results-based approach. She said the Minister could determine or withdraw funds for other research facilities that could qualify for funding, but did that not fall under the control of the NRF. On the fact that the budget was getting smaller, she asked what the implications were for the activities of the DST and NRF. What were the Department’s plans to meet this challenge?

Mr Sefako asked how research would affect the average person in deep, rural areas.

The Chairperson said she wanted to understand stakeholders’ comments that the bill allowed the Minister to interact directly with the NRF and not through the board. What were the Department’s concerns?

Responding to the Chairperson’s question, Mr auf der Heyde said there was historically a view that research was best supported by letting researchers dictate what research they do. This was an ideal, as in reality someone funded research and impacted what research was being done. In that context, the Department wanted to make it explicit in the bill that state funded research was to be in the interest of the SA public.

On the concern expressed over the Minister’s powers, he surmised it was a concern over political meddling in the affairs of the NRF. Another reason could be that a former member of the NRF board was a senior member of Wits.

Ms Nomonde January, Head of Legal, DST, said replies were sent to all respondents to the call for submissions. The Act contained provisions that the NRF acts through the board and there was a Shareholders Compact between the board and the Minister.

On the regulation of public funded research outputs, Mr auf der Heyde said all institutions were required to register intellectual property under the Intellectual Property Rights Act. The Department had established a National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO) to regulate the Act and had established NIPMO offices at all universities, so it was well regulated.

On giving an overview of engagement activities, he said the Department would be willing to make a presentation to Committee, in conjunction with NRF.

On concern expressed about the interpretation of government priorities as being narrow, he said government priorities and the priorities of DST were the same. DST’s priorities were determined in the short, medium and long term. DST had partnerships with other government departments in terms of research which was of benefit to other departments. NRF also had relationships with other departments. He believed the amendment bill closed gaps that might create tension between research priorities and government priorities.

 

On what informed the establishment of facilities, he said the NRF could make recommendations to departments to establish new facilities, the department could identify that there is need for a new research institute. Only two or three new public science institutions was established for some time now, while the size and scope of science research had increased tremendously in the same period. The Department had started establishing a road map on new institutions in the medium to long term and could discuss with the NRF the feasibility of incubating such facilities in the NRF.

He could understand that there might be confusion amongst members between the concepts of national research facilities and institutions. Facilities were those within the NRF and which it managed. All public science councils, public universities, and some NGO’s were national research institutions.

On the financial implications for the Department, he said everyone knew that the budget was tight, but a few weeks ago Treasury had agreed to fund a new piece of equipment for the national accelerator centre. This was an additional allocation. For the short to medium term, the most obvious source of new money would be improved efficiencies and savings and the bill empowered the Minister and NRF to ensure, jointly, better alignment of research activity to improve investment efficiency.

On Mr Sefako’s question on the use of the word ‘may’ and the phrase ‘after consultation’, Ms January said there were certain requirements the research facility had to submit and then it went through the NRF and then to the Minister. The word ‘may’ was used because the decision lies with the Minister.

Committee Programme Changes

The Chairperson said that the meeting scheduled for the following week would not take place as the Committee had decided to let the advertisement and call for submissions continue until 9 November and the bill would next be dealt with after that date on 14 November.

 

Dr Molapo Qhobela, CEO, NRF, asked if oral submissions would follow after they had received written submissions. 

 

The Chairperson confirmed that would happen. She said the Committee had a responsibility to ensure there was public participation even though it was a s75 bill.

 

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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