SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement: briefing

Science and Technology

15 February 2005
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


15 February 2005

Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out:
SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement

Ms Beverley Damonse, Executive Director of the SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), provided the Committee with background information on her organisation as well as a description of their operations. SAASTA now formed part of the NRF (National Research Foundation) and their functions were situated within the national policy context. SAASTA’s purpose was to engage the public on matters relating to science and technology. They did this through preparing tomorrow’s scientists and innovators, engaging with the phenomena of science and communicating the results of research advances to the public. After the presentation the Members asked questions relating to SAASTA’s work in rural areas, the language in which their message was conveyed, science vis-à-vis technology and the relationship between SAASTA and profit making partners.


SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement briefing

Ms Damonse provided a short historical context of SAASTA. They had a history as the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology (FEST), who reported to the Department of Science and Technology. They were held accountable to the FEST Council. They were involved in fostering public understanding of science, engineering and technology. In December 2002 FEST were incorporated into the National Research Foundation (NRF), reporting in a direct line to the Department of Science and Technology. Thereafter FEST had a change of name, resulting in the current name of South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. In July 2003, Ms Damonse were appointed as their new executive director. Thus, SAASTA was controlled by the NRF and formed part of the larger NRF family. This meant the corporisation of functions such as finances and human resources and sharing these across the bigger NRF.

After 2003, SAASTA had made a very serious investigation into their internal and external realignment. Ms Damonse said they had to look at the implications of their incorporation into the NRF, and at the impact they had. Internally they had to align themselves with the principles of the NRF and the science system. Externally they had to align themselves with how they functioned with government departments. The Department of Science and Technology had also undergone a number of changes since 1998, especially in terms of public understanding. Ms Damonse said that having had their organisation brought into the larger organisation of the NRF meant that a lot of internal and external realignment had to be done.

Ms Damonse continued by discussing the national system of innovation. She said that she had some reservations regarding PUSET, as engagement is a much more modern way of advocating science and technology. She said that the national system of innovation’s goals was improving the quality of life and the creation of wealth for all South Africans. In order to improve the quality of life and to create wealth, the system had a number of role-players and structural parts. SAASTA saw themselves fitting into this framework as the creators of future research and development capacity.

Regarding the policy context, Ms Damonse said that their policy was located within the policy of the country. This was encapsulated in the White Paper of 1996. Science and technology information should be disseminated as widely as possible in ways that were understood and appreciated by the public.

SAASTA research and development strategy
Ms Damonse discussed the promotion of science within the research and development strategy of 2002. She said one could find a common thread - the importance of engaging the public on science and technology. The strategy included making science and technology attractive, accessible and relevant, enlarging the number of PUSET and engagement activities, increasing participation by women and previously disadvantaged groups, using ‘big science’ focus areas to spark excitement in the youth and communicating the future of science careers through the science disciplines.

Ms Damonse then looked at the critical outcomes that needed to be achieved in the strategy. The key was the creation of critical mass in science, engineering and technology human capital. Other outcomes were the stimulation and enhancement of innovation and the stimulation of enhanced entrepreneurship.

Regarding the processes of this strategy, Ms Damonse said one could create awareness across organisations promoting a science and public interface which drew all entities together. She said this had brought an advantage.

According to Ms Damonse, the objectives of the strategy were very clear:
- creating opportunities to celebrate South African achievements in science and technology;
- to enthuse young people about the wonder and application of science and technology;
- to enlarge the pool of learners who become future scientists, engineers and technologists;
- to encourage greater public engagement in SET (science, engineering and technology) issues;
- ‘firing up’ scientists to become involved in science communication initiatives, and
- enhancing the public’s appreciation of the benefit of science.

Ms Damonse said that these were the objectives because they contributed to the quality of people’s lives and would increase the SET workforce, as well as rallying public and political support. It would also build science as a cultural aspect, making it an everyday part of life and a part of South Africa’s heritage.

Referring to their budget, Ms Damonse said that the NRF was an organisation with a budget of over a billion Rand. SAASTA only got a small portion of this as their core funding. They also received contract income to fill their coffers. SAASTA’s staff number averaged between 42 and 48, of whom some were contracted.

Ms Damonse reiterated that SAASTA underwent an intense period of alignment and realignment in 2004. She said they must be more organised to meet their objectives. Three interlinked pillars supported their work:

1. Explore, Experience, Exhibit
This involved a direct engagement of science. The science system as a whole had centres and facilities to promote engagement with science. Ms Damonse said this was a very important part of the programme, which took the form of interactive learning through museums, observatories and zoological gardens and co-ordinated outreach programmes to schools.

2. Debate, Discuss, Communicate
This involved communicating the results of research advances to the public. Ms Damonse said this presented a great opportunity to engage, and was a very exciting field in South Africa. Of special importance was the approximately 3 500 projects supported by grants. Ms Damonse said that the quality and quantity of science reporting in the media should be improved. Therefore they engaged in capacity development of journalists, as well as scientists.

3. Teach and Learn
This pillar represented the preparation of tomorrow’s scientists and innovators. SAASTA involvement in this pillar included the Science Olympiad, as well as supporting the Pan African Maths Olympiad. The National Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) week and the National Science Week (May 2005), which is this year linked to the International Year of Physics, also formed part SAASTA’s activities for this pillar.

These pillars brought together a host of role-players in a multi-layered approach to promote science. This would be done through teaching and learning, communicating research, products networks and career opportunities. This must be achieved with support from industry and the media. Ms Damonse complained that the media gave poor coverage to science, unless it was sensationalist. She also said that scientists must make their work more accessible for public dissemination.

Creating Awareness
Ms Damonse discussed initiatives to create an awareness of science, thereby increasing access to scientific knowledge and language, and confidence in science. These initiatives were:

World Space Week: SAASTA ran the art competition "Southern Skies Challenge", which elicited drawing models as entries from learners on the subjects of space, space science and astronomy. The art had been used in a number of publications and exhibitions, which got conversations started on issues of astronomy in communities.

Easy Science: The publication of their own magazine had been problematical, therefore SAASTA produced an insert in the youth publication Mini Mag, to make science accessible to the youth. Sixteen thousand copies were distributed monthly, and the readership was estimated to be between 250 000 and 300 000.

Primary Science Day (March 2005): SAASTA planned to distribute learning kits and hold teacher workshops to 600 schools as a pilot project.

Resource booklets: SAASTA had distributed at least 10 000 copies of an astronomy booklet through science centres.

SA Science Lens: SAASTA ran an annual photography competition with the Mail & Guardian. The competition had been running for three years and they were looking at a partnership with the Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC) to extend the competition to the youth.

Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB): This was a three-year initiative funded by the Department of Science and Technology. It aimed at promoting public understanding of biotechnology and its scientific principles by supplying balanced factual information. This was done through the creation of opportunities for dialogue and debate, as well as the dramas Muti Inc. and Ta Ta ma genes.

Science for Rural Communities: This was a grant-funding programme to promote efficient water use for small-scale farmers. Since financial years 2003/04 and 2004/05, R636 400 had been utilised in this programme.

Science communication initiatives: SAASTA was involved in several communication initiatives, such as science writing courses, training scientists for popular communication, the Young Science Writers Competition, new communication strategies, the Global Seminar in Science Communication and international collaborations.

National Youth Innovation Campaign: SAASTA was working with the innovation fund to build an innovation culture among the youth, in doing so building the next generation of high-tech innovators. This was also done through a grants scheme.

South African Large Telescope (SALT) Collateral Benefits Plan: This plan aimed at ensuring that the telescope’s presence in Sutherland reached beyond science and technology, empowering the community.

iThemba Laboratories Science and Technology Awareness Programme: The laboratory was open to the public and they operated a community outreach programme. They had experienced encouraging numbers of visitors.

Hartebees Radio: Hartebees Radio had organised visits to the observatory by schools and youth groups. They had also visited schools and participated in science festivals, SET weeks, and other special events. They had also facilitated educator workshops in astronomy, as well as public visits to the observatory.

Hermanus Magnetic Observatory Science Centre: The Science Centre serviced areas otherwise not exposed to science and technology.

Ms Damonse said that a major challenge was the identification of new forms of participation that considered high levels of illiteracy, the rural community context, the role of women and family, the influence of radio, and local, culturally appropriate low-cost technologies. She said they could not achieve this on their core budget alone, and were therefore considering funding partnerships. SAASTA was just one part of a bigger system.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) said that it seemed that most of SAASTA’s work was done in urban areas. He asked for more information on Science for Rural areas, especially concerning the administering of the grants and how people could apply for these grants. He also wanted to know if the Committee could visit specific projects. Ms Damonse said that they needed realignment regarding rural communities. They had identified what they needed to do to reach these communities. Language and access were problematic issues. In every project they ran, the aim was to reach and access marginalised communities, even though this was not always possible. Radio would be an important way to access these communities, but they had not yet fully explored this avenue.

Professor I Mohamed (ANC) asked about the role of the NRF and tertiary institutions in attracting students. He also wanted to know about SAATA’s initiatives, or whether they were just taking students to exhibitions, museums and the like. He also expressed concerns that exhibitions did not do enough to explain everyday occurrences sufficiently. Ms Damonse responded that they had been put under the auspices of the NRF because the government made the decision to rationalise the science system. They were thus driven by external factors and policies. It made sense for the NRF to have a feeder system for future researchers, concentrated in organisations such as SAASTA.

Mr J Blanché (DA) said he was unhappy because much more focus had been given to science rather than technology, where he believed the major opportunities for job creation lay. He stressed the importance of job creation. Mr K Khumalo (ANC) also said it was difficult to promote science as a field of study if there were no employment opportunities. Mr A Mlangeni (ANC) said science should have a beneficial, practical outcome, such as enhanced food production, as well as creating wealth. Ms Damonse said that she had used the term ‘science’ in its broadest sense, and that she was not differentiating between science and technology. SAASTA’s approach had been to promote science in a problem-solving manner, allowing people to link theoretical science with practical technology. Dr Clifford Nxomani (Manager: SALT Science Foundation) said science was beneficial in many ways. He mentioned Mark Shuttleworth as an example how science had been used to create wealth. He said there was no technology without science. He also said that it was important to realise that the investment made in science would only accrue benefits later. He mentioned a contemporary project in Sutherland as an example of how science could benefit a community.

Mr K Khumalo (ANC) enquired about access to science, especially pertaining to language. He asked if knowledge was really disseminated to a wider audience than the traditional base of academics. He said the most appropriate platform should be found, not relying on the traditional, exclusive platforms of the past. He also questioned the partnerships with external commercial bodies, as he envisaged that these bodies might be reluctant to disseminate knowledge to a wide audience. Ms Damonse said that a role model from a particular community was a useful method employed to break down the perception that science was the realm of a select few. The role models were also useful in overcoming the important issue of the language barrier. She said that some of the material used was translated. However, she conceded that they were yet to meet this need in all of their projects. Relating to the question on partnerships, Ms Damonse said that partnerships were necessary for funding, but that consideration was given to create wider access opportunities. If funding was found in one area, it might have a trickle down effect through the partner’s contact and opportunities in other areas.

Ms F Mohamed (ANC) asked for empirical figures on the number of women funded by the programmes, as well as their success rate. She also asked for greater clarity on the numbers of those affected by advocacy in the rural areas. She also wanted further detail on venture capital and fiscal incentives as well as clarity on how the Committee could participate in the Olympiads and National Science Week. Time did not allow her questions to be answered.

The Chairperson said that they should develop science so that it thrilled the public. He wanted to see direct results, which depended on the communication of cryptic information.

The meeting was adjourned.


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