The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology was briefed by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) on the SA science, technology and innovation-indicators report. The meeting took place on a virtual platform. The STI Indicators Report provides statistics and assessment of NSI contextualised globally since 2019
The presentation highlighted that a lot of set targets had not yet been achieved and therefore inequality continues to exist especially in relation to employment opportunities.
Members expressed that innovation is an important in implementing development and that equal representation of females is important. Concerns were raised on the unavailability of recent and relevant data which addresses the current COVID-19 period. The decrease in the research fund grant was also an area of concern as well as the increasing unemployment rate amongst graduates.
The Committee also received a briefing from the parliamentary legal services on the terms of reference on the University of Venda enquiry.
National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) Presentation
Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, Council Member, NACI, gave an introductory background to the presentation, the Global Innovation Index and the Global Competitiveness Index. He mentioned. the challenges that face development which include human capital ranking; however, this has improved from 2018 to 2019 and the number of female researchers in the system has also seen an improvement.
He highlighted the distribution of engineering graduates between females and males and the percentage distribution of engineering graduates based on race.
Focusing on investments, the STI funding and the National Research Fund (NRF) grant targets are currently not being met, with scientific and technological outputs showing a decline. University-industry government partnerships and technology exports have also been found to be lower when compared to countries such as China and Korea.
The Chairperson thanked the NACI for the presentation and asked that the report be made available to Members. He mentioned that investment in research and development is important in advancing the country. The report on the investment will be reviewed by the Committee.
He highlighted that the detailed outline plan that will be presented to the Executive structures should involve the Portfolio Committee and asked about the progress in the finalisation of the plan by the Department.
Mr W Letsie (ANC) welcomed the report by NACI and said the NRF grant has experienced a total decline of R200 000 in the past two years and asked what the impact of this decline is. He mentioned the unemployment rate has increased from 2018 to 2019 for individuals who hold undergraduate, Master’s and Doctoral degrees and asked why this is the case.
Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) asked if there were “acting” positions in the council and if permanent positions would be made available within the council. She inquired as to when the vacant positions would be filled.
She mentioned that recent data was expected, however, what was presented reflected on the findings of 2008 - 2015. She also expressed concerns on the high male dominated research and employment numbers and asked on the impact on COVID-19 on job losses and potential challenges.
Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) highlighted South Africa’s knowledge production and research during COVID-19 and asked if these had been supported and if there is a balance of these knowledge systems. She asked about the impact that has been achieved in research that requires constant monitoring and how research in the engineering field can be increased.
She inquired how cooperation can be created between departments to ensure that engineering requirements are clearly outlined so that fair representation in mostly male dominated fields is achieved. It is important to fund research at postgraduate level to ensure that there is fair representation especially during COVID-19 when funding has been limited.
The Chairperson asked for specific proposals on how the level of investments and performance can be improved and enquired on the level of collaboration that exists with other science institutes in collecting information because programme updates are expected annually.
Dr Mlungisi Cele, Acting Chief Executive Officer, NACI, said that there were collaborations between the NRF team and all experts who produce data in science and innovation and added that the annual report will be provided to the Committee once it becomes available.
The recommendations in the report include creating human resource development strategies that support and consider the value that is produced in postgraduate level and investment and funding in research and development are also underway. He added that the recommendations have been forwarded to the Minister and the Department.
Collaborations exist to explore solutions in addressing COVID-19 and the report will reveal the extent to which research publications have been impacted relation to COVID-19. He mentioned that 44 articles have been released on COVID-19 alone.
Mr Naidoo said that the NACI relies on the Water Research Levy and that there has been a delay in the levy in the current year. A decrease in the research enterprise has been evident in many global partnerships because of COVID-19 and the lockdown.
On the issue of providing relevant information, he said that NACI is working hard to generate current and relevant information and that 43% of research was conducted by females, which is an improvement in the system.
On the specific proposals, he said that the NACI has contributed to the White Paper and invested on laboratory infrastructure and that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) impact is noted as it is designed to allow access from anywhere in the world especially during COVID-19.
The human capital increase in unemployment is an area of concern because more skilled people are jobless.
Investment in the water and sanitation infrastructure is a building block in addressing the water and sanitation issues in Africa.
Mr Naidoo said that innovation does not guarantee development, but it will assist in addressing some of the challenges in innovation. He added that international competitiveness happens within the country and not outside the borders and that an economic strategy will help address these issues.
Ms Himla Soodyall, Executive Officer, Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), explained that the matter on the acting positions was raised in a meeting with the Minister and feedback is still awaited from the Minister. On operationalising activities together with government departments, she said that the point raised is valid and that engagements have happened with the Minister and plans on addressing the matter are on the agenda of the upcoming NACI council meeting.
The lack of research by females is well understood by NACI and once a study has been conducted on the gaps in the system, it will be shared with the Committee.
In addressing challenges faced during the pandemic, she mentioned that research on the indicators was done before the COVID-19 pandemic and that a COVID-19 narrative is being conducted together with other stakeholders at a national level.
Funding is a challenge but tools such as virtual platforms allow for collaborative activities to take place including webinars addressing challenges. She added that entities need to come together to address the challenges of poverty and inequality and that the NACI will reprioritise in assisting government to address these challenges.
Mr David Mmakola, Acting Deputy Director-General: Institutional Planning & Support, Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), explained that the filling of the acting executive position was delayed because of COVID-19 but an update will be provided to the Committee. There has been progress in appointing the CEO of NACI and the interviews and recommendations have been completed, however, the process is still being discussed at Cabinet level.
The IKA based interventions were implemented to respond to COVID-19 and there is collaboration with universities.
Dr Cele thanked the Committee for the opportunity to present and added that written responses would be submitted for the questions that could not be answered. Other issues can be addressed when NACI returns to present the annual report.
The Chairperson said that the only questions that were not responded to were addressed to the NRF on the issue of decreased funding.
Early in the year, the Committee was planning a conference which could not happen because of the lockdown and this needs to be followed up on. The purpose of the conference was to provide clarity on certain issues where various stakeholders would have been invited to participate and discuss on these issues.
The Chairperson expressed disappointment in the progress of finalising the decadal plan and said that the Department had previously briefed the Committee on the finalisation of the plan being October 2019, but the plan still has not been finalized in the current year. He encouraged Mr Mmakola to ensure the finalisation of the plan before the end of the year and the Committee to be briefed on the plan early next year.
In addressing the unemployment figures, he said that the relationship between the level of literacy and employment need to be understood to break the poverty cycle. The more illiterate people are, the higher the rate of unemployment and the more poverty increases; as such the human resource development strategy needs to outline how the cycle of poverty will be broken.
On the issue of development increasing inequality in society, the Chairperson said that the presentation highlighted that employment in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal reveal that these provinces are the economic hubs of the country which were created by the Apartheid system. The cycle of inequality needs to be addressed especially for the unequal patterns of development that are taking place.
The Chairperson thanked the Department for the presentation and for the engagements.
Parliamentary Legal Services
The Chairperson said that letters were received from the lawyers of the University of Venda on the enquiry of the appointment of Prof Peter Mbati. Proper procedures will be followed to avoid future problems in approaching the matter and once an approach is approved by the Committee, it will then be considered.
Ms Fatima Ebrahim, Parliamentary Legal Adviser, said the purpose of the briefing was to present the terms of reference that will govern the manner which the enquiry will be carried out by the Committee. The focus of the enquiry was not to deliberate on the matters of the case at the University of Venda but to conduct an oversight.
She outlined the background of the terms of reference, the rules of the National Assembly and the objectives of the oversight enquiry.
The Committee approved the terms of reference that were presented on the enquiry.
Consideration and adoption of Committee minutes
The minutes from the month of July until October were approved and adopted by the Committee.
The Chairperson said that an allegation was made by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU) that the VBS administrator provided misleading information on the cancellation of contracts, on the information that NSFAS is now separate from sBucks and also the reasons for the delay of the tabling of the Annual Report. He mentioned that the matters need to be verified because a follow up meeting is scheduled with NSFAS for the following week and with Vaal University of Technology (VUT) in appointing a security company.
Ms Mkhatshwa said that the Gauteng oversight report failed to note concerns that Universities South Africa (USAf) did not have a comprehensive report and that the burning of infrastructure was condemned by the Committee.
The Chairperson asked for a draft amendment to be sent to the Committee secretary on the matters raised by Ms Mkhatshwa.
On the allegations that were raised in the report, Mr Letsie said that the position of the acting CFO is incorrect and that it should be changed to Deputy Vice-Chancellor.
Ms Mkhatshwa highlighted that the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) report does not mention anything on the representation of citizens in leadership and management of DSI entities.
Mr Letsie shared sentiments with Ms Mkhatshwa.
The DHET 2019/2020 quarterly performance report was adopted.
The DSI 2019/2020 quarterly performance report was adopted.
The Chairperson said that before the end of the sixth administration, there are plans for the Committee to engage with all universities and entities.
The meeting was adjourned.
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