Department of Science and Technology 2018/19 Annual Report; Square Kilometre Array Convention (SKA)

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

13 November 2019
Chairperson: Mr M Nchabeleng (ANC, Limpopo)
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Meeting Summary

Annual Reports 2018/2019
The Department of Science and Technology presented its Annual Report for 2018/19, which elaborated on its overall and financial performance. It mentioned its achievement of 91% of its targets and attributed its shortcoming in not meeting five targets was due to target formulation deficiencies and process delays.

Members questioned DST on its progress in finding a cure for HIV/Aids; climate change research; its initiatives for promoting science to learners in rural areas, as well as empowering them for further study in the discipline. Members requested specifics on the bursaries DST awarded to students such as numbers per province and per university.

Members requested information on DST’s entities, as well as their impact for South Africa. They questioned DST’s level of adherence to the White Paper and the National Development Plan. Members queried the possibility of enhancing the production of maize and crops. DST was asked about its progress in addressing the energy shortage, as well as the mothballing of power plants. DST was requested to explain the fruitless and wasteful expenditure it incurred.

DST also gave a presentation on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Convention with was signed in March 2019 in Rome by Australia, China, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Members questioned the DST on the level of engagement and support the South African private sector provided to SKA. They requested insight into the nature of data that the SKA telescope would work with. 

Meeting report

Department of Science and Technology (DST) 2018/19 Annual Report
Dr Phil Mjwara, DST Director-General, reported that the Auditor-General noted 14 audit findings in 2018/19 showing a drastic reduction compared to the 21 findings in  2017/18.

Overall, DST achieved 42 (91%) of its 47 targets in the Annual Performance Plan (APP). The DST maintained its support of the national priorities by implementing five Strategic Outcome-Oriented Goals:
• A responsive, coordinated and efficient national system of innovation (NSI),
• Increased knowledge generation,
• Using knowledge for economic development,
• Human capital development (HCD),
• Using knowledge for inclusive development.

Dr Mjwara elaborated on the performance per programme:
• Administration: achieved 100% of its targets.
• Technology Innovation: achieved 100% of its targets.
• International Cooperation and Resources: achieved 100% of its targets.
• Research Development and Support: achieved 80% of its targets.
• Socio-Economic Innovation Partnerships: achieved 75% of its targets.

Dr Mjwara explained that the five targets which were not achieved, or underachieved, were due to target formulation deficiencies and process delays.

Ms Pretty Makukule, DST Chief Financial Officer, spoke on DST’s Financial Performance. The contents of the report included: overall financial performance; financial performance per economic classification; financial performance per programme; details of expenditure on transfers and subsidiaries on core programmes; donor funds.  

The CFO reported that DST had spent R7 958m (99.2%) of its planned expenditure in 2018/19, resulting in a surplus of R66m (0.8%), which was given back to the National Revenue Fund (NRF). DST spent 39.03% of its R106m procurement expenditure on Small Medium Micro Enterprises (SMMEs), 45.77% on Black companies, and 23.11% on Woman-owned companies. DST paid 100% of its suppliers within the prescribed period of 30 days, achieving an average of 9 days to pay suppliers.

Dr Mjwara concluded by stating that DST would continue to advance their current work in line with the White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation.

The Chairperson commented that the Select Committee would need to visit DST’s working areas, as well as acquire more information on DST entities and their impact on South Africa.

Mr M Bara (DA, Gauteng) commended DST on its excellent audit. He asked what measures DST had undertaken to recruit more students from rural areas. He referred to DST’s strategic goals and asked if DST had identified any means of enhancing its maize and crop pilot initiative. He asked about DST's progress in finding a cure for HIV/Aids and about its efforts in addressing climate change.

Ms S Luthuli (EFF. KwaZulu-Natal) asked DST about its efforts to empower rural schools in the discipline of science.

Ms S Ndongeni (ANC, Eastern Cape) commented that she would like to see the statistics of the bursary holders, specifically a breakdown of individuals per province and per university.

The Chairperson enquired about the fields that the bursary awardees were studying in. He stressed the importance of the public sector’s adherence to the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP), as well as the role of politicians in facilitating comprehensive laws to achieve these goals.

Mr Bara emphasised the importance of the applicability of science and technology, so as to see its contribution to the economy of the country.

Ms Ndongeni asked about DST’s progress in meeting the goals of the White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation.

Dr Mjwara replied that DST was in the process of developing a 10-year plan from the policies drawn from the White Paper, to be completed by May/June 2020. the DST headed various initiatives in collaboration with other departments, and thus required the departments responsible to finance them.

On recruiting learners from rural areas, the DG referred to their partnership with Department of Basic Education. Specifically the DST focused on targeting learners from the town of Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, where they had partnered with the Eastern Cape Department of Education to provide tablets to learners. This was with the aim to improve learners’ interest in mathematics and science, and would be followed by an evaluation by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), to gauge the success of the initiative. This initiative was in its pilot phase, and the hope was to replicate this to cover the entire country.

Dr Mjwara replied about enhancing specifically the maize and crop pilot initiative headed by Stellenbosch University. The White Paper proposed mechanisms to facilitate the adoption of small-scale initiatives such as these to be expanded throughout the country.

On DST’s research on HIV/Aids, Dr Mjwara mentioned that DST had funded a number of initiatives and noted their sponsorship of research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. UKZN had been engaged in clinical trials on special antiretroviral medications to gain a better understanding of the virus. The university had made a breakthrough in creating more efficient ARVs to fight the HIV/Aids virus.

On climate change, Dr Mjwara explained that DST would have to undertake further research to assess its impact on South Africa as well as Southern Africa. Further research would help to distinguish between climate change and variability in the climate.

The DG commented on DST’s support for a strengthened relationship with the Department of Basic Education, stating that apart from their initiative in Cofimvaba they were engaged with science centres in each province of South Africa, to inspire the discipline of science in youth. Dr Mjwara referred to various pilot programmes in KwaZulu-Natal, such as one in uMkhanyakude District Municipality, as well as another at Sgidi sabaThembu Primary School in Ladysmith.

Ms Makukule expanded on DST demographics, stating that it had 13 employees (3%) living with disabilities, as well as 61% women. Women represented 48% of DST senior management and there were interventions in place to increase these figures.

The Chairperson questioned DST on the status of finding alternative energy sources for the country, with particular focus on the use of mothballed power plants.

Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), commented that a funding shortfall resulted in the mothballing of a power plant in 2011 and there had been discussions by Eskom to revive the plant. there had been discussions to introduce an advanced fuel programme in the country, in partnership with China.

Briefing by Department of Science and Technology on the Square Kilometre Array Convention
Dr Mjwara outlined the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Convention. They were comprised of the:
Background on the SKA Project; The Convention establishing the SKA Observatory; Purpose of signing the SKA Convention; Why an Inter-Governmental Organisation; Architecture of the SKA Convention; Main provision of the Convention; SKA Council Preparatory Task Force; Ratification / Entry into Force (see document).

Dr Mjwara extended an invitation to the Committee to visit the Karoo Array Telescope. the DST was currently finalising the building of 133 dishes in South Africa, and the SKA Board would convene in the following week to ensure the close out. The Portfolio Committee had approved the ratification of the Convention.

Mr Bara asked DST about the level of support the private sector provided to its initiatives.

Ms Ndongeni asked DST about the compatibility of the SKA data with electronic devices, as well as its reach throughout the country.

The Chairperson inquired about the incident of a fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R526 000 that affected DST. He was of the impression that the SKA initiative had already been completed.

Dr Mjwara responded that Dr Adam would answer the question on the private sector, Ms Makukule would reply about the fruitless and wasteful expenditure, and Mr Nomaungani would respond about data.

Dr Adam commented that the funding for the KAS was mainly international, with South Africa contributing 14% of the costs, while the other members of the Convention contributed 86%. In addition, 75% of the initiative’s fund was spent on private sector businesses in South Africa. Local contractors were involved to the level of 15%. He gave the example of a private sector company assisting in the construction of an 80 kilometre tar road along the route to the SKA facility. He also mentioned that a South African bank had assisted multiple subcontractors by providing them with interest-free loans.

In response to a question on the level of participation expected from the private sector as the project commenced with its expansion, Dr Adam said that the procurement of the telescope would involve the leadership of South African civil construction, electronics and high performance computing to name a few. the funding would thus mostly be spent on local businesses.

On the question of data, Mr Takalani Nomaungani commented that the SKA telescope would receive signals from extra-terrestrial bodies it will study,and subsequently convert those signals to data. The data would then be processed and transported to data centres throughout the world. the data would also be interpreted into pictures, and enable a better understanding of the universe.

Ms Makukule replied that the fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R526 000 was due to the cancellation of an event that was planned to occur in 2018/19. The Minister of Science and Technology cancelled the event due to the unavailability of key speakers, and thus the reputational risks it posed. In spite of the cancellation, DST still had to pay its service providers. This resulted in an investigation into the incident and its subsequent classification as fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

The Chairperson expressed the need for the Committee to work in liaison with DST to inspire South Africans and especially the youth, about science and technology. He commended DST on its clean audit.

The meeting was adjourned.

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