Department Strategic Plan and Budget: briefing

Science and Technology

09 June 2004
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


9 June 2004

Mr Ngcobo

Documents handed out
Powerpoint presentation on Technology for Development
Powerpoint presentation on International Co-operation and Resources
Powerpoint presentation on Corporate Strategy
Powerpoint presentation on Science and Technology for Competitiveness

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) presented details of the different programmes in its budget vote. There was much discussion on traditional medicines and the protection of indigenous knowledge systems Concerns were also raised about the Pebble Bed Reactor and the involvement of people with disabilities in technology.

Mr R Adam, the Director -General of the DST, addressed the Committee and said that the corporate plan was an expression of the budget as presented to the Committee the previous week. At that meeting the Committee had asked for more detail about the various programmes in the budget. Various members of the delegation would present the different programmes to the Committee.

Mr D Moagi, Manager: Communication, addressed the Committee briefly on Program 1: Administration. He pointed out that the administration programme provided support for the other programs It was slightly different in that it did lots of policy work, offered legal services and involved human resources.

Ms L Thahane, Deputy Director General: Group Executive, presented Program 2: Technology for Development. She added that this programme worked from the premise that technology was a tool for development and that technology was used to help people reach their potential.

Program 3: International Cooperation and Resources was presented by Mr D Naidoo. He added that this unit had approached Treasury to access funds from traditional agencies such as the World Bank. This was a new approach and would be done slowly. He also said that the DST was involved in forming partnerships with the "new 10" countries which were the Eastern European countries. Funding from the EU would be going to these countries to develop them. South Africa was therefore seeking to benefit from these funds by entering into bilateral agreements with these countries.

Program 4: Corporate Strategy was presented by the Director General, Mr R Adam. He added that this programme was the governance engine of the DST. The DST had a very good financial management policy. It had spent 99,8% of the previous year's budget. Of importance in this year's budget was the re-positioning of the CSIR from the DTI to the DST. This was a big development and should be completed by October or November 2004. He pointed out that spending by the DST was spread across other sectors as well such as the Department of Energy and Mineral Affairs, Transport and Environment Affairs and Tourism. The DST was trying to consolidate this spending.

Mr A Paterson, Chief Operating Officer, addressed the Committee on Program 5: Science and Technology for Competitiveness. The presentation is in the Powerpoint Presentation attached.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) referred to Program 2 and said that the presentation was fascinating. In the presentation however it was mentioned that there was a low uptake and awareness of programmes He wanted to know what the DST was doing about this. He also wanted to know how communities could access the DST and what the DST would offer them. Referring to Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS), he asked if there was a register for this, especially medicinal plants.

Ms Thahane replied that the low uptake was as a result of limited capacity. The DST could do more to extend its activities to the people. The best way to access the DST was through its website or its publications. For further information, people could contact the DST directly. The DST was also hoping to have provincial offices through which it could reach out to people. She noted that there were several IKS databases, mostly at universities. It was envisaged that this would all be brought together in one database. There was a framework for policy to protect IKS.

Prof I Mohamed (ANC) asked for more information about the Africa Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Referring to IKS, he cautioned against claims being made about cures for illnesses. He asked what the position was about the Pebble Bed Reactor (PBMR) as there were concerns about it and whether it would still be built. He also wanted to know where the centres of excellence would be and what their areas of work would be.

Ms Thahane replied that to make claims about miracle cures were dangerous and a disservice to the people. Mr Paterson said that AIMS was targeted at students who had either graduate or honours level qualifications with a strong orientation to the mathematical sciences. The aim was to take these students through a process of one year to eighteen months and expose them to different research areas. The programme was constructed to excite people about the range of possibilities of mathematics in the African setting but that were globally excellent. There are two intakes per year, one coinciding with the South African educational cycle and one with the European cycle, which dominates the northern part of Africa. The centre was based in Muizenberg and was sponsored by Neil Turok, a well-known cosmologist and mathematician. Mr Naidoo added that all the students were at research level and were working on some major projects such as development of Open Source Software and developing mathematical models to deal with AIDS and epidemiology. There were 30 students from fourteen countries in Africa. Half had already indicated that they were prepared to stay on and do postgraduate work, many at Ph D level. The students were also well represented along a gender basis. The aim was to develop a number of AIMS projects across Africa and link them up.

Referring to the PBMR, Mr Adam said that he was not sure if it was going ahead. The Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism was dealing with the appeal on the environmental impact assessment. The DST role was to see that South Africa did not lose the scientific edge as far as human resources was concerned.

Mr Paterson said that five or six centres had been identified as centres of excellence. This was proposed in the National Research and Development strategy. The National Research Foundation (NRF) had undertaken all of the development work. Negotiations were in progress with the NRF regarding the structure of these programmes The first year of deployment would require R25 million. The lifecycle of the centres would be ten years by which time the centres would probably have used R43 million. The Minister would be announcing the venues at the end of June and therefore he could not disclose the venues before this. The intentions of these centres would be to recognise the pinnacles of academic and scientific achievements, to strengthen them and to develop human resources further.

Mr B Myandu (DA) referred to traditional medicines and asked if there was synergy with work around patents and protection of this work.

Ms Thahane replied that traditional medicine was one knowledge area that promised high returns. For this reason, it was receiving high priority. There was no legislation to provide protection or to punish people with regard to traditional medicines. This was also difficult to implement, so the best way was to put legislation in place that would provide protection and minimise the chances of abuse. Patenting was the responsibility of the DTI who had already begun work in this area.

Mr J Blanche (DA) wanted to know what the DST was doing to transfer technology to disabled people and other people in institutions such as prisons.

Mr Paterson replied that a study had been done the previous year with all of the science councils and the universities to determine whether they complied with the basic requirements for people with disabilities. The result had shown that most of these institutions had not complied, which had been very disappointing. A process was now underway in which these institutions could put these requirements in place. This had lead to a pilot study being done to investigate whether universities and technical institutions were taking people with disabilities into account when planning their courses and facilities. There was now a need for a national discussion to be held regarding this so that the necessary changes could be undertaken. A set of meetings was held with the disability unit of the Presidency in order to draw on the innovations that people with disabilities have developed. A study was also in progress in which the construction of wheelchairs was being investigated. The aim was to see how this could be modified. The CSIR was also encouraged to review its programmes and projects so that it benefited people with disabilities and also to see that the transfer of skills took place in this area. Around the issues of prisons, he said that this had not been considered.

The Chair remarked that the Medical Research Council had reported to the Committee the previous year that a centre was being established in Limpopo where certain traditional medicines were proven to be effective in HIV treatment. He asked if there was any more information regarding this.

Ms Thahane replied that as far as she knew, there were some plants that were known to boost the immune system in HIV sufferers. She was very careful however to make any claims. Some of these plants were in the North West while others were in the Eastern Cape. So far, it had been found that there was no toxicity and it seemed promising. Some communities were growing these plants so that these were not depleted in nature.

The Chair remarked that the medicines he was referring to were those from traditional healers in Limpopo. Ms Thahane said that she was not aware of these.

The Chair said that according to the report of the DST there were some vacancies. He wanted to know if this was addressed. He also asked if the DST was doing any research on cryogenics. He knew that there was a company set up in Durban but had not heard anything mentioned by the DST. He had also not heard anything mentioned about the JET project at Oxford which dealt with fusion technology. He also questioned how many people were involved in working on international partnerships as one would need quite a few people to follow up on all the agreements.

Mr Adam replied that the DST had gone a long way to fill vacancies. There was not enough funds for every post identified. So far approximately 200 positions had been filled. There were 120 vacancies at present of which half were funded. The other problem was that it was difficult to obtain the right people. The DST had to decide which technologies to concentrate on. At present it was not involved in cryogenics and was not aware of significant investment in it in South Africa. At present South Africa was not involved in the Jet project. South Africa had at one time had its own fusion project. Nuclear fusion was probably about 25 years in the future. He suggested that maybe South Africa should get involved. To make this meaningful however, a significant investment would have to be made.

The Chair said that in 1995 he had been on a tour of the project. At the time, discussions were held about the location of the first plant. The options at the time were Russia, Switzerland or Japan.

Mr Naidoo said that at the moment the location of the plant was between France and Japan. He added that the capacity in the international arena was a problem. The branch inside the department co-ordinated all the activities in this area. It was serviced by other members of the DST as well and the science councils were also used. They were also organising a series of attaches. One was already established in Brussels. There were plans for five more. The second was already confirmed for Japan. In addition to this, colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs were also used and their trade attaches. There was good cooperation with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The meeting was then adjourned.


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