Square Kilometre Array Telescope & MeerKAT projects: briefing

Higher Education, Science and Technology

11 September 2019
Chairperson: Mr M Mapulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed by the Department of Higher Education and Training, Science Technology on the Square Kilometre Array Telescope & MeerKAT projects, Radio astronomy projects as well as on governance of the project. The Committee was pleased to hear that the SKA projects was said to yield great economic benefits for the district town of Carnavon in the Northern Cape. In terms of the investment impact in the Karoo, R420 million has been spent through construction of KAT-7 and MeerKAT on local suppliers and contractors. R1 million was spent on training 351 people by major contractors StratoSAT and NMC. Also, R1.7 million was spent on material sourced from local suppliers for the building of HERA. 7284 job opportunities were created through the construction of KAT-7, MeerKAT and other related projects whilst 72 FET students have been funded in the Northern Cape since 2011 and 14 from local communities to universities.

Members asked where the Member countries deposited their instruments of ratification; Is it a voluntary process that involves only selected countries; about the relationship between the Inter-Governmental Organisation and the United Nations and if it was part of the system of the United Nations;  and when the protocol convention would be brought to the country. Members heard that the two Memorandums had already been submitted to Cabinet and that it would require the approval of both Houses and that the Member countries had to deposit their instruments with the United Kingdom.

The Committee commented that ‘it was a new day in Africa that after the few times that Africa was called a dark continent, now that seemed to be working to its advantage’. Members asked questions about partnerships with black owned SMMEs; partnerships with schools and their locations; the replacement of the acquired 133 000 hectares of land bought for the construction of the SKA project in the Northern Cape; the diminished funding from the African Renaissance Fund; whether the electromagnetic waves and radioactive waves did not run a risk with ICASA’s technology; partnerships with TVET Colleges and partnership with the Department of Basic Education in its curriculum.

The Department would submit some answers to questions in writing.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed everyone present and submitted all the apologies from the Minister, the Deputy Minister and other absent Members. He said that Members would need some update on the SKA as well as other related issues.

Briefing by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on the SKA, MeerKAT and other Radio Astronomy projects
Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General: Department of Science and Technology, presented an overview and update of the project. He commenced by outlining why South Africa was involved in the SKA project and said it was due to among other things the geographical advantage, the pristine clear skies and radio quietness in the Karoo. He added that the scientific returns which yielded growth in scientific outputs; the technological returns involving reviving the local manufacturing industry and big data; and HCD and skills development with 1161 grants or bursaries awarded in total to create a pipeline of requisite skills, were the other reasons for involvement. Socio economic returns, African development and international partnerships were amongst the reasons for involvement.

SKA is located in three sites with headquarters in Manchester, South Africa and Australia and will be managed through an Inter-Governmental Organisation. The SKA is a square meter dish array, and only after 36 dishes of MeerKAT have completed would phase one of the SKA project be constituted. The MeerKAT project consists of 64 dishes which is a precursor to the SKA project.

In terms of the investment impact in the Karoo, R420 million has been spent through construction of KAT-7 and MeerKAT on local suppliers and contractors. R1 million was spent on training 351 people by major contractors StratoSAT and NMC. Thirdly, R1.7 million was spent on material sourced from local suppliers for the building of HERA. 7284 job opportunities were created through the construction of KAT-7, MeerKAT and other related projects whilst 72 FET students have been funded in the Northern Cape since 2011 and 14 from local communities to universities.

The SARAO Human Capital Development started in 2005 for scholarship for science, engineering and technical skills. Total of 1166 recipients awarded of which 607 have been awarded to black South Africans and 275 to South African women. The graduates have a higher than average rate sitting at 76% for undergraduate, 97% for honours and 94% for Masters and 92% for Doctoral levels. The employment of HCD postgraduates currently sits at 24% by SARAO, 37% by South African universities and national facilities and 19% into RSA high-tech industry.

Mr Mjwari also touched on technician and artisan training established in Carnavon as well as the extended internship programme at SARAO.

Briefing on the international governance of the SKA project
Mr Daan Du Toit, Deputy Director General: ICR at DST, presented on the international governance of the SKA project and outlined that following the Cabinet approval, South Africa, Australia, China and Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom signed the Convention establishing the SKA Observatory on 12 March 2018 in Rome. India and Sweden would soon sign the Convention in the coming months.

As for an IGO, the construction and operational phases of the global SKA project will best be implemented through a legal entity established under international law and not under any national legal jurisdiction in order to enable relevant diplomatic privileges and immunities to be afforded to facilitate implementation of the project; provide the project with the flexibility to design policies such as procurement, best suited for the project; and embed at the highest political level inter-governmental commitment to the project.

The Chairperson asked about the relationship between the Inter-Governmental Organisation and the United Nations. Is it not part of the system of the United Nations?

Mr Du Toit said that the IGO was not part of the United Nations – it is independent of the UN. Some of aspects of the rules of the IGO were borrowed from the UN system and processes on the depository of the Convention.

The Chairperson asked where the Member countries deposited their instruments of ratification. Is it a voluntary process that involves only selected countries?

Mr Du Toit said that the Member countries deposited their instruments with the United Kingdom.   He added that it was a partnership that was opened to any country. The involvement would be decided by the government of that country. However, the addition of the new Member country would require the approval of the existing Member countries.

The Chairperson asked when the protocol convention would be brought to the country.

Mr Du Toit said that the two Memorandums had already been submitted to Cabinet.  It would require the approval of both Houses.

Discussion
Mr B Yabo (ANC) commented that it was a new day in Africa that after the few times that Africa was being called a dark continent now it seems to be working to its advantage. The project almost acts as an accelerator for the development of scientific skills, in fact as a catalyst for the development for those skills. He would lobby the Department to be located within the Presidency to broaden its scope in the study of science.

He asked how would the Department get SMMEs especially black-owned one’s to take part in these projects considering how far off they are located. On the data centre, he asked where it was located. Where is the company from and who were the scientists involved in that project?

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) asked what the Department’s role was regarding the commitments made at the World Economic Forum in supporting moves against gender-based violence through technology. She asked whether the Department had plans to tell its success stories. It is important that the successes were put out to the public.

She asked how many schools the Department supported and where were those schools located. She asked where community projects were located across the country. Lastly, as much as there was development in science and technology, indigenous languages should not be undermined in the process.

Dr W Boshoff (FF+) asked about the Science and Technology budget when it was tabled in Parliament and when New Zealand withdrew from the Convention. He asked why New Zealand withdrew. Apparently there were claims that the advantages would not weigh up to the costs.

Dr Boshoff said that as a Member of Parliament from the Northern Cape, there are some views from the community that needed to be taken into consideration. These views involve the long term sustainability of the districts of Carnavon and the other towns. The people whose land was bought, they received good compensation. The SKA has substantially invested into the schools and in different ways to enhance economic life. He said that the removal of 133 000 hectares of land from farming must be replaced by something else and asked if the investment in education good was enough to make these people make a good living somewhere else, or will they be able to put back into the community.

It was mentioned that the income in agriculture could be replaced by income in tourism but it did not seem like most of these scientists were keen on staying in Carnavon or Wellington. Is there a comprehensive economic reinvention of the area to make it a tourism district?

Regarding the economic activities with SANParks, he asked how it was going to be different from what the farmers used to do. How is it going to be managed and is there a plan to replace the economic activity with an alternative economic activity? It seems that the jobs that would be created would be around construction phase.

He requested the Chairperson to ensure that when Members visited the area that they involve members of the community to hear about some of the opposition views on the construction of dishes. This would assist in allaying any possible fears.

The Chairperson sought clarity from Dr Boshoff about the concern of the community in those towns.

Dr Boshoff said the area is a small farming area for livestock and the 130 000 hectares was removed from the area for this project. Some of the farmers are actually commercial farmers. It is an area with infrastructure and structures, and taking that 130 000 hectares will have significant implications on the viability of community life. Many of the farmers said that when the stakeholder’s meetings were happening, the people would not always be able to give people the technical answers and they always said they would come back but never did.

Mr P Keetse (EFF) asked about the economic impact of the SKA project beside the communities that the project was being built as well as SMMEs that partnered in the construction of these projects. He asked about the number of South Africans involved in the EHT (Event Horizon Telescope) project. There are a number of nationalities that were involved in that project.

Lastly, he wanted to know whether through the electromagnetic waves and radioactive waves do not run the risk of interfering with ICASA’s technology.

Mr B Nodada (DA) wanted to know if one locates with TVET Colleges or universities, and I yes which one’s should be partnered with. Is there a plan to expand the studies around Astronomy in partnership with the Department of Basic Education? Secondly, how will the Department get this right on the claims about the fastest computer ever built?

Mr Nodada said that it was said that the funds were being depleted from the African Renaissance. He asked if the fund would allow for the continuation of the projects with no political interference. What is the plan around the depletion of those funds? He echoed the same sentiments regarding the oversight visits of the sites.

Mr T Letsie (ANC) said there were different views on MeerKAT but he encouraged it as long as it did not impact in a negative way on the livelihood of the communities in which these projects were being built. He asked whether it was possible to make use of these technologies on other national matters such as in airports and ship ports.

Responses
Mr Mjwara said the department would await the correspondence from the Secretariat when the Committee would like to visit the sites and arrangements would be made.

One of the things that have happened in the 6th Administration was to be asked by the Presidency what innovation meant for the Department in its portfolio of work. Through the process that the DG and the Presidency is doing, the Department has started indicating what it does. In the plan that will be shared with the Committee, it will be clear what the Department would do in the plan.

Four areas were identified as things that the Department can do for South Africa; firstly, modernising the economy through science and innovation. Secondly, identifying new sources of growth and the Department would share with the Committee on the 4IR (4th Industrial Revolution) and the investments made. Thirdly, how the Department can improve service delivery through science and technology. Fourthly, using research on how policies that have been implemented through research that has been done.

The detail on the participation of SMMEs (Small Medium and Micro Enterprises) involved in the projects would be furnished in writing, if the Chairperson allows.

On the data centre and individuals that have been involved in computing capabilities and what those skills can do and where they are, the Department knows where they are. There is an IP (Intellectual Property) Strategy that would be coming up about the project and where they are located in the economy but that could be shared with the Committee through correspondence.

The Department could also furnish the migration of the activities that would come out of the project and where they would be located in the economy.

The management of cases in court could also be a space where technology can play a role. One of the important issues would be digitizing the court systems by even tracking the cases by the time they are reported, when the people are in the correctional services as well as whether they have been granted parole. This is something that can be piloted in partnership with the Department of Justice. This would not actually take a long time to develop. It is possible conceptually.

On telling the story of the project, he admitted that the Department did not do enough on this part.  

On the schools that are supported, specifically on the SKA project – the breakdown could be provided to the Committee. On the community projects, he requested to come back with a detailed presentation with a geographical location of all the projects done by the Department – the entire portfolio. The Department could submit this in writing.

The impact of the project beside the community, the Department thinks about outside the technology returns. There are technologies that are developed in the projects with the possibility of being deployed elsewhere in the economy with specific reference to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – both in the skills level and industries that could be created out of this. They are at the scale where the Department could partner with other departments and be embedded with other department’s projects. The Department has started engaging in the re-imagining of industrialisation with the Department of Trade and Industry around how the projects can be embedded in the re-imagining on the industrial policy. With the skills generated the Department is now part of the DHET to scale the initiatives and give the projects the impact they required. The Department is also working with the Presidency on the skills provided for young people with Harambe and the scalability of some of the work that has been done. Once those initiatives have been completed, the Department would come and share this with the Committee.

On the funding, the amount of money that will flow into the country will be around the operation of the telescope. Once the telescope is built, it will need to be operated. The Telescope will not be ours when it becomes part of the SKA Phase One. About 10% or 15% of the cost of building the telescope will be the amount of money that will be needed to operate it – those are some of the returns that will be flowing into the country.

The Department has formed partnerships with Multinational companies that have interest in developing these technologies. At NMU one of the Multi-National Companies have set up a centre for broadband communication and the Department will be utilising that to look at alternative broadband infrastructure for the country and the skills needed for networking technologies. At the moment, it has not been quantified in terms of Rands and cents but one of the teams between the departments has been asked to quantify the Rands and cents and once that is available it will be provided to the committee.

The programme on the data scientist and the skills that would be trained, the Department is having discussions with the Department of basic education. The Department discussed the curriculum for coding as a skill that would be required in the future. It echoed that it would like to have special schools in some of the scientific and technological areas and maritime related activities. The Department could provide that information once the process of engagement with the Department of Basic Education, the Department could come back and report on the details.

The radio waves are specific in the spectrum and the CPUT has developed a Cube SAT (a cubic centimetre satellite) which orbits from the North to the South Pole. It sends signals on different ranges such as to the sea and by law the ships on sea must have a transponder that responds within a particular frequency to satellite tracking. If there is a ship at sea with a satellite and if it is not responding through a transponder, one can send the coast guard to find out why the ship was not responding. The Department could show the Committee along the east coast and the west coast all the ships on the coast line and Members could see all the ships that were on the radar. There are applications from other work with the space or state agency that could be utilised.

The Space Agency is also working with a company in the country on a technology that could assist in the monitoring of the landing of the planes.

Mr Du Toit said that New Zealand did pull out of the Convention; it was informed by the government due to national budget considerations. However, it is not a significant setback and it has been offset by increasing participation from other countries such as Portugal and the investments by Germany. The decision was contested in New Zealand but the international community had to respect it.

One of the most important things in investing in these projects is scientific returns. South Africa has been consistently investing in these projects and pioneering these projects for Africa.

On the African Renaissance Fund, this is an instrument from DIRCO (Department of international Relations and Cooperation) for programmes that government funds in other countries to strengthen South African relationships with other African countries. The fund also contributes towards socio-economic development in those countries – it is an instrument to advance foreign policy in Africa. It is also a capacity building funding asset for radio astronomy in order to host the SKA once a day. So the funding cycle has come to an end but negotiations with DIRCO were underway for continued access to those Funds and further funding.

Mr Rob Adam, Managing Director at SARAO said that on the data and computing issues. One of the questions under consideration was the location of the data centre was whether to put it in the Northern Cape or the Western Cape. The original thinking was that in the former there were power issues as opposed to the latter. However, if the process happens in the Western Cape there would be a problem of transporting the data from the Western Cape to the Northern Cape.

In the Karoo, there is the fastest computer in Africa to reduce the huge Turenne of data coming out of the anthems into the correlator to provide a coherent picture in space. That data is stored and sent down to Cape Town where  the in-house capabilities regarding data and computing has been developed.

Out of the SKA project, other technologies would come up and one of the predicted technologies that would come up is big data. The skills that have been developed could be deployed into other projects.

On black owned SMMEs, this could be divided into two parts – the roads in the Northern Cape were constructed by these companies. But on the high tech level, this was tricky but he requested to respond to the Committee with a list with details. DTI codes were applied in the procurement processes. There was only one high tech black owned company based in Johannesburg that he could think of.

On lost opportunities in the Northern Cape, it is true that about 133 000 hectares of land was brought. Different estimates say that between R10 million to R20 million a year has been taken into farming. However, what has been put back into that economy was in the region of R400 million from 20 years ago. This is money that was put into construction, capacity building of skills, technical training schools and centres, tourism, catering services, bursaries awarded to local students and partnerships with TVET Colleges.

The project is roughly valued at a billion Euros, and roughly ten percent of the capital costs are spent operating the project.  These were some of the returns that come from the project.

The aim is to change the economy and the society in the Northern Cape. If one goes up to Springbok and in the mining towns in that province one would find that mining has changed those towns in terms of skills and other related activities.

Mr Adam said that with regard to ICASA, the Department works very closely in terms of frequency allocation.

On EHT, there was South African involvement in that publication. The South African Professor who was involved in that programme came from the skills development programmes by the Department.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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