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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
9 November 2004
NATIONAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION AND DEPARTMENT: BRIEFINGS
Chairperson: Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)
Documents handed out:
National Research Foundation: Annual Report and Financial Statements (offsite link)
Representatives from the National Research Foundation (NRF) briefed the Committee on the organisation's Annual Report and Financial Statements for 2003/2004, after which the Members raised a number of queries and requests for clarity. Of some concern was the low number of graduates who had applied for Doctorate programmes, skills retention and resource development, and the failure of institutions such as the NRF to support innovative individuals who were not enrolled at higher-education facilities.
The Department of Science and Technology then briefed the Committee on initiatives in human capital development. This included an outline of the incentive programme designed to attract PhD students as well as enhance skills retention, the programme formulated to address the issue of unemployed science graduates and the activities of the Departmental directorate responsible for advancing science and mathematics in schools. Members suggested that the Department develop an incentive strategy, in line with other market opportunities, to encourage students of science to study and work in South Africa.
National Research Foundation briefing
Mr van Gruenewoudt (NRF Vice-President) briefed the Committee on the activities of the NRF during financial year 2003/2004. This included an outline of the foundation's mission and strategic objectives, its accomplishments, focus areas and grant programmes. Finally, he introduced some of their principal challenges, including issues of equity and redress, obsolete and inadequate equipment and resources, accelerating high-level skills development, re-aligning the National Zoological Gardens (NZG) as a national research facility, and the revision of the NRF Act to accommodate its expanded mandate. Professor Charles (Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO)) and Dr Nyomani (SAAO) then briefed the Committee on progress made on the South African Large Telescope (SALT) project and the public outreach projects and benefits associated with it.
Mr P Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) expressed concern regarding the question of equity and redress within the NRF and asked how many women and disabled people were employed in the foundation's management structures. He also requested clarity on the issue of bursary allocation and asked whether the NRF was able to support innovative individuals who were not enrolled at higher education facilities.
Mr van Gruenewoudt indicated that of their 21 senior officials, four were women and two were disabled. The Foundation would supply the Committee with more detailed information concerning the status of its employees. In addition he explained that NRF funding was reserved for purposes of research and was only allocated to postgraduates.
The Chairperson noted the need for a mechanism that identified and assisted innovative individuals who did not have access to institutions of higher learning.
Mr Skeef (NRF: Executive Director; New Business Development) assured the Committee that the NRF would, in consultation with the Department of Trade and Industry, explore the possibility of establishing such a mechanism.
Mr K Khumalo (ANC) queried the NRF's financial statements relating to the remuneration of board members and enquired about the Foundation's retirement benefits policy. In addition he requested clarity on the status and role of the shareholders in the SALT project.
Mr van Gruenewoudt provided clarity on the question of the remuneration of NRF Board members. Confusion had arisen around the tabulation method used in that section of the financial report. The various individuals and organisations that had invested in the construction of SALT were allocated access to the facility relative to their contribution. Furthermore, he explained that the NRF's retirement benefit policy was designed to be self-revitalising.
Ms F Mahomed (ANC) asked whether the Bio-regional Innovation Centres (BRICs) were included in the NRF mandate given the South African national biotechnology strategy and queried the figure of R59 million for accumulated unspent funding. She then requested more information on the NZG and commented on the need for a more rigorous advocacy strategy in terms of promoting science amongst the previously disadvantaged.
Mr van Gruenewoudt replied that the BRICs were not administered by the NRF and explained that accumulated unspent funds referred to those funds that had been allocated for various proposals and projects but remained unclaimed. He added that the NRF was in the process of establishing an interactive science centre at the NZG, which would assist in developing public interest and that the NRF was active in underdeveloped and isolated areas.
Ms F Mahomed (ANC) asked whether every PhD applicant was required to report to the NRF.
Mr van Gruenewoudt answered that the individual applicant did not have to report to the NRF, as consideration of his submission was the responsibility of the institution at which he was applying.
Mr B Mnyandu (DA) wanted to know the annual throughput rate for the fields in which the NRF was involved and what NRF did to ensure that guarantors spent their funds responsibly.
Mr van Gruenewoudt indicated that the throughput rate for the natural and social sciences were reflected in the Key Performance Indicator Report attached to the Annual Report.
Professor I Mohamed (ANC) enquired about the methods employed the NRF when selecting evaluators and asked whether the mentor system was still operational.
Mr van Gruenewoudt explained that a variety of checks and balances existed with regard to selection of evaluators and that the Foundation was in the process of reintroducing the mentor system. In response to a query on HIV/AIDS, he added that the NRF supported a number of assessment programmes that dealt with the issue.
Mr J Blanche (DA) expressed concern at the fact that only one in 500 South African graduate students had applied for PhD programmes and asked whether white PhD applicants were being turned down as a consequence of their race.
Mr van Gruenewoudt acknowledged that the small number of PhD applicants was a serious problem. The NFR had attempted to maintain a balance between advantaged and disadvantaged students. He added that many students left the country for reasons other than difficulties in obtaining bursaries.
Professor Charles pointed out that the problem of the low number of PhD students was a consequence of the education system and was therefore beyond NRF control.
The Chairperson agreed that the issue was critical and noted that there was a negative attitude amongst many people with respect to the sciences. He also noted problems with the peer review system and suggested that there were areas in which the NRF could improve its delivery.
Mr van Gruenewoudt responded that, due to limited funds, the NRF still had to employ rigorous peer review and be selective. In addition he indicated that the Foundation was attempting to address the question of mindsets and fostering of positive attitudes.
Ms Canea (Department Chief Director; Human Capital) then briefed the Committee on initiatives in human capital development. This included an outline of the incentive programme designed to attract PhD students as well as enhance skills retention, the programme formulated to address the issue of unemployed science graduates and the activities of the DST directorate responsible for advancing science and mathematics in schools. She then introduced some of the key challenges associated with human capital development.
Mr P Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) suggested that the Department focus on the issue of skills retention, and proposed that a strategy be developed to encourage students of science to study and work in South Africa.
Ms F Mahomed (ANC) concurred and added that any such incentive strategy ought to be aligned with market demands as this would assist with economic development.
Mr J Blanche (DA) commented that the Department should not focus solely on graduates and pointed out all school leavers should be educated and encouraged to use and develop technologies.
The meeting was adjourned.
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