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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
18 October 2005
NATIONAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION, ACADEMY OF SCIENCE OF SA, AND TSHUMISANO TECHNOLOGY STATUS PROGRAMME: BRIEFINGS
Documents handed out:
Academy of Science of SA PowerPoint Presentation
National Research Foundation Power Point Presentation
Scarce Skills Development Fund Review 2003/04 [available at www.nrf.ac.za]
Tshumisano Technology Status Programme Power Point Presentation
The National Research Foundation (NRF), the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSASA) and Tshumisano Technology Status Programme presented briefings on their activities to the Committee. The latter two presentations were very short due to lack of time, and Tshumisano delegates were invited to revisit the Committee.
NRF staff particularly outline progress in their Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP), SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), the Sutherland SA Large Telescope (SALT) and various observatories.
In the ensuing discussion, Members were particularly concerned about the employment prospects of programme graduates, and how to attract students to the sciences. They were interested in climate change research, indigenous knowledge systems, the benefits of the SALT to national economic development, and why the NRF programmes did not seem to match up with those set out in the NRF Act. The NRF would have to discuss the latter issue thoroughly with the Department.
The Academy of Science of SA reported that it had been established in terms of the ASSA Act 67 of 2001, and had been launched in 1996. It had entered into a ‘bidding programme’ with national academies in the United States, and had a six-year budget of R9 million. The Committee mainly wanted to know about their membership criteria.
There was little time for the presentation by Tshumisano, a Department initiative to support South African enterprises. Members asked more about their successes, and how they avoided duplication of roles with other similar institutions.
The Chairperson announced that the Members had been invited to the Sutherland launch. The Committee Secretary was commissioned to organise official invitations and arrangements.
National Research Foundation briefing
NRF Chairperson, Dr Daya Reddy, apologised on behalf of the Chief Executive Officer, Dr Khotso Mokhele, who could not attend the meeting because of an engagement in Beijing.
Dr Reddy mentioned that the Board had two key Committees to expand its terms of reference. He stated that the board had taken the issue of succession seriously as the NRF President, Dr Mokhele, would step down next year in June.
Ms M Pienaar (Coordinator, Evaluation Centre) stated that the NRF was part of the family of Science Councils and was both an intermediary and an agency to provide access to high level quality infrastructure. It had innovation links with non-governmental organisations, government departments, science councils and institutions of higher learning.
Four core missions were identified as well as strategic priorities that included equity and redress. NRF had also seen the need to produce large numbers of high quality PhD (Doctoral) graduates as part of the key drivers of change. There had been structural arrangements and strategic foci in certain fields or disciplines.
The organisation wanted to "unlock frozen demographics" in race and gender by supporting students and grant holders. Students had to be pushed to go through to Doctorate level. The total amount for student support had been R114.9 million and for human resource development R255 million.
Their Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP) wanted to support science and technology by employing skilled people. THRIP supported 2500 students. The Innovation Fund was an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and had been managed by the NRF. It had a high target of black people and thus far had funded 38 postgraduate disabled students. About 8 000 postdoctoral students had been supported by various agencies Labour.
The SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) was the second leg of NRF activities and its main activities were science awareness, communication and education. It sought to undertake a countrywide outreach to educate kids and assist teachers, and also via the Science and Technology Museum. The National Research Facilities and Flagship Programmes had a unique position in South African knowledge production. It had a critical mass of equipment and users.
Miss Pienaar then gave a briefing on the SA Astronomical Observatory and the progress with the SA Large Telescope (SALT) and the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory. She also talked about the Biodiversity and Conservation cluster, and the African Coelacanth Aquatic System. The SA Environmental Observatory Network had opened in Phalaborwa this year and provided long-term information.
The Department of Science and Technology had given R16.5 million for nuclear science processes. Synergies had become apparent and the facilities adhered to the human resources requirements of the NRF. The corporate functions of NRF include human resources and transformation, and gender and race representivity at all levels of employment was doing well. The NRF had also established a new division with the purpose of growing its financial resources (New Business Development). The organisation had displayed a great propensity of internal efficiencies.
Mr Bishen Singh, NRF Executive Director of Finance, then made a presentation to the Committee. In 2002/03, NRF had had R626 million budget, in 2003/04 it had R733 million, and in the financial year 2004/05 it had R9.4 million. The intended targeted income had been R438 million and 96% of this target had been met (R414 million). The grant funding had increased by 16%. The key financial outcomes had been compliance with the Public Finances Management Act (PFMA). There had been a 29% improvement in core grant claims and the ratio of RISA salary and running expenditure to grants, had been maintained.
The financial challenges had been funding of post-retirement healthcare benefits, unspent ring-fenced funds, Information Technology (IT) control weakness, appropriate government structures for the Innovation Fund following dissolution of the Innovation Fund Trust, carry-over of project funds and improved cash flow management and funding of the National Zoological Gardens (NZG) liabilities.
The Chairperson of NRF related that the Department of Science and Technology had invited them to submit details of new policy options.
Mr Ainslie (ANC) thanked Dr Reddy for the detailed and timely presentation. He stated that in terms of the National Research Foundation, five divisions should have been established. He could not match the link between clusters and the Act requirements. He also asked why a number of PhD and Masters students could not find jobs. To what extent had the NRF been getting funds from overseas and why steps had not been taken earlier?
Mr Van den Heever (ANC) asked how the NRF had contributed to equity through its programmes. To what extent had equity and redress been addressed?
Mr Mlangeni (ANC) wanted to know more about the effects of climate change.
Mr Dithebe (ANC) said that he was glad that the issue of corporate governance had been taken seriously. How was the NRF approaching the government’s ‘2014 Vision’ and the Millennium Development Goals. He also asked how the issue of indigenous systems had been addressed. When would the Committee be briefed about the activities of Science Week?
Mr P Thompson, Executive Director: Human Resources, clarified that the NRF had nine focus areas and wanted scientists to start dealing with cross-cutting issues. The structure set down by the NRF Act would not have allowed them to deal effectively with these issues.
South Africa was not unique in its challenges with regards to employment prospects for PhD graduates. Increasingly advanced degrees were becoming preferred and there was a need for a partnership between universities and the industries. NRF had been discussing and developing ‘destination studies’ in order to check what happened to students, how they find employment, and so forth.
Dr Skeef, NRF Executive Director: New Business Development, stated that students were not trained on the assumption that they would instantly be employed, but were also taught entrepreneurship skills. NRF did not exclusively use funding from overseas, but needed to leverage support and include other players. They had bilateral agreements with other flagship programmes.
Mr Thompson said that the management of NRF had recognised the existence of employee problems before NRF had been formally established. In 1999, a study had been undertaken. Labour negotiations had taken place and NRF had explained to the staff that there were limited resources and therefore NRF had to prioritise. Slowly the issue of pension payouts was being dealt with. On other finance issues, he said there had been a manual, labour-intensive way to deal with compensation and controls. Verification of bank account details had been done.
Professor Charles, Director of SA Astronomical Observatory, gave an update on the Large Telescope in Sutherland. He reported that a third of their finances had been given by the South African government, and 60% of its budget had been spent within South Africa. The SALT project could be an inspiration to would-be scientists. They wanted to see an increase in the quality of science teaching.
Dr Pienaar answered regarding indigenous knowledge systems, that their Knowledge Field Development division reviewed what was happening on a continuous basis. Debate had been opened with the communities.
Dr Skeef noted that the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) advanced public awareness and appreciation of science and technology in South Africa although the NRF had been involved in outreach engagements to excite scholars about the sciences. NRF would do a review of Science Week and he would report to the Committee on it.
Ms Anathi Canca, Department of Science and Technology, said that currently the Department had been engaging provinces and would bring report to the Committee if invited to do so.
Dr Skeef mentioned that Dr Mokhele had indicated that he was stepping down as President, but was not leaving the country. He had had a long stretch working with the NRF and would use his skills to contribute by other means to the country’s development.
Mr Mlangeni mentioned that Dr Charles had said that the level of science educators in South Africa was "horrifying". Had strategies been implemented?
In an endeavour to increase research publication rates, the NRF had been involved in a number of initiatives. Money had been assigned to projects and there were three national programmes at Masters’ level. All research was done at public institutions, such as Ithemba Laboratories.
Mr Ainslie stated that the Act dictated that the NRF should establish its structure a certain way and this had not been done. Why had the NRF ignored the Act requirements?
Dr Skeef asked if they could formally respond to the question at a later stage. They would give a response that would attempt to clarify and explain the processes.
Mr Mlangeni raised the question of science and mathematics teachers being ill-prepared. The NRF had a duty to continuously engage the Minister of Education on this issue. Miss Canca stated that they and the Department of Education had developed a programme to deal with this problem, and SAASTA would play a central role.
Mr Dithebe asked Dr Charles data accumulated through SALT would benefit South Africa in terms of economic growth. Was employability of PhDs or realignment of skills the major problem?
The Chairperson asked why one component was not formed instead of having the NRF, Innovation Fund and so forth. Did their duties not overlap? He asked Dr Charles to give an explanation of the Nobel Peace Prize for Optics. How had the Centre of Excellence in Potchefstroom been co-ordinated? The importance of the work of the Council for Geoscience was crucial. How could funds be raised for students and agencies, as far as the FP6 was concerned.
Dr Charles responded that if SALT were to be a success, an academic research ‘backbone’ (similar to that in Britain 20 years ago), was needed.
Professor Krish Baruth-Ram said that the Centre for Excellence in Potchefstroom was not a NRF body. The Ithemba Laboratories were involved in offering that programme. Ithemba facilities had been part of the University of the Witwatersrand, and had been recently incorporated. Some problems had thus been inherited. He was not aware of Masters and PhD graduates in the sciences who were not employed. They often found employment in the Ministry, nuclear regulation and other agencies. Less than 30% of PhD graduates stayed in the ‘academic world’.
Dr Skeef stated that THRIP and the Support Programme for Industrial Innovation (SPII) were two programmes of the Department of Trade and Industry, with the latter being more involved in supporting research skills. There were significant differences and similarities.
Dr Skeef said that the NRF had received a letter of information a few months ago and the process was still on going. He was not aware that cryogenics had been a focus area but would however look at this in the context of bilateral agreements with India. The creation of a directorate, the core and function of that, had to be looked at if the quality of our PhDs was to be realised.
The framework programmes for research, FP6 and FP7, had been designed for member states of the European Union to co-operate through research, and it allowed other non-members to participate. The NRF had not partnered enough with the Department. They would however be looking at how they could better do this.
Professor Baruth-Ram said that they were concerned with partnerships elsewhere. About 5 000 Euros had been invested Ithemba Labs. The Centre would fund 20 scientists from Africa.
Dr Anushka Lucen, Department Manager: Institutional Performance Management, said that the Department had been trying to harmonise all relevant legislation. The Act was outdated and the Department was busy with the amendments. She said that if proper analysis were done, it would be found that the Act had not been contravened. Dr Skeef said that the NRF would be engaging with the Department to look at the Act. The Chairperson stated that he was happy to hear the NRF and the Department had been dealing with these sensitive matters.
Academy of Science of SA briefing
Professor Gevers, ASSAF Chief Executive Officer, stated that the Academy had been established in terms of the ASSA Act 67 of 2001. He talked about the history and character of the Academy and mentioned that its patron had been Mr Nelson Mandela since its launch in 1996. He talked about their strategic vision and stated that ASSA had entered into a ‘bidding programme’ with national academies in the United States.
About R9 million had been allocated to the Academy over six years. Professor Gevers also mentioned their membership categories, governance, human and physical infrastructure and the South African Journal of Science. He talked also about their international activities, programme objectives and outcomes, as well as the national awards ceremonies.
Mr Blanche (DA), Mr Ainslie, Mr Mhlangeni and Mr Dithebe asked for detail on the membership categories and criteria. The Chairperson asked about the criteria for awards and the criteria for board Membership.
Professor Gevers responded that there had been a long debate about classifications. At the next meeting of the Council, they would look into setting up committees to bring scientists to work together. The first committee to be set up would deal with poverty alleviation. They had taken steps to expand membership, and were open to nominations. Membership was open to active scientists of high merit committed to community development.
The R9 million was for capacitation had not been a research grant, but had enabled a study to be undertaken. Many Members of ASSAF were registered with the South African Council
for Natural Scientists (SACNAS) and so hopefully they would help in steering clear of duplication.
Mr David Phaho, Chief Executive Officer, stated that Tshumisano had been a Department initiative to support South African enterprises. He talked about their goals and three interlinked components of the programme. The envisaged outcomes were national economic growth objectives, advocacy, and financial and socio-political development. He also mentioned that three new stations had been launched last year.
The Chairperson said that the Committee would invite Tshumisano to interact with them further because of the time constraints.
Mr Mlangeni (ANC) asked if Tshumisano ever had to carry over funds. He also asked who had been responsible for student fees.
Mr Dithebe (ANC) asked how balance had been achieved and how duplication had been avoided.
Mr Ainslie (ANC) asked if the progress of those assisted had been tracked over time. Had ‘successes’ been ‘rolled out’ across the country?
The Chairperson asked if Tshumisano had interacted with a new national tooling company in Durban.
Mr Phaho said that the initiative in advanced tooling were involved in research. The budget had limited involvement in other provinces. A study had been presented to the board, and the majority of those interviewed were satisfied with the initiatives. There was always danger of duplication. Inter-collaboration of centres was encouraged. One of the reasons for involving students had been to give them life experiences, and knowledge of Small-, Medium- and Micro-Enterprises (SMMEs).
The meeting was adjourned.
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