CSIR Conference and Corporate Plan: briefing

Science and Technology

09 March 2006
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


9 March 2006

Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out
CSIR Corporate Plan 2006/7-2008/9
Highlights of the CSIR Research and Innovation Conference

The Committee heard the highlights of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Research and Innovation Conference and its Corporate Plan for 2006/7 to 2008/9. Members’ concerns included the interventions that could be made by the Council to help Eskom solve the problem of power failures, low cost houses that were built on unsuitable land, the relationship with Denel, the poor state of the Council and work done on Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) presentation
Dr Walwyn said that the background to the conference was the celebration of the CSIR’s 60th Anniversary. The focus was on the profile of the CSIR’s research portfolio, presentations and posters. The conference took place over two days and the programme was divided into many themes. The highlights included Infrastructure, Defence, Peace and Security, Natural Environment and Sustainable Development, Bioscience and Health, Energy and Agriculture.

Dr S Sibisi, CEO, mentioned the mandate of the CSIR and the strategic plan to be achieved by 2008/9. He then explained the operational plan highlights and the financial budget. The 2003 institutional review triggered the Beyond 60 organisational renewal that led to the reconfiguration of the organisation. New structures were put in place that included five units, four National Research Centres and research and development outcomes. The CSIR’s 3-year strategic intent included strengthening of human capital and enhancing the profile of the CSIR staff. The stakeholders had set targets for the demographic transformation of the organisation. He said that the research and development outcomes were for the public good. He mentioned the financial budget and the operational highlights of 2006/7.

The Chairperson said that the presentation by the CSIR was impressive, but the strategic plan was not specific enough. He said that the Committee expected things like workable objectives, prioritisation, situational analysis, indicators and targets, specificity and time frames. He added that the strategic plan should have compared the previous year with the projected year. The Committee had been trained by the National Treasury to check on those things when reviewing strategic plans. That would empower the Committee to tell the CSIR the areas they needed to focus on and it would make it easier to deal with the Treasury.

Mr S Dithebe (ANC) said that the role of research was very important with regards to innovation in defence. He wanted to know about the relationship between Denel and the CSIR in light of the fact that Denel was allocated over R2 billion for 2006/07.

Dr Sibisi replied that Denel had been in difficulty recently. Some of Denel’s operations that had to be continued did not fit the classical commercial model, but they were important to the state. Denel had been discussing with the CSIR and other stakeholders the need for forming the Defence Evaluation and Research Institute (DERI). The role of that institute would be to look at Denel’s activities that had to be maintained though they were not commercially viable. For example, the wind tunnel and the missile launch facilities were mentioned. Various countries could utilise them rather than having to reinvent the wheel.

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) said the low cost houses that were built in Mpumalanga were erected in "dumps". She asked why the CSIR did not use satellite images before decisions were made on where to build.

Dr Walwyn replied that there were many factors involved in making decisions on where to build low cost housing. The Government had to ensure that mistakes of the past were not repeated where houses were built in faraway places. He said that contemporary thinking had shifted to integrated development. The CSIR was looking at finding the optimal solution. It was difficult to use satellite images when investigating where infrastructure was required. The images could be used to identify places that were attracting people, as in peri-urban areas that needed services.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) urged the CSIR to look at the Committee programme when they planned conferences. He asked what criteria were used to select themes for conferences.

Dr Walwyn replied that the themes were chosen according to specific research proposals and each proposal should be related to national research and development imperatives. If a proposal was not aligned to the national research and development imperatives then it would not be considered. He said that one in four proposals was rejected for a number of reasons, such as the fact that the research question was not properly formulated and unrealistic. The themes were chosen to elicit a certain response from the CSIR, i.e. to stimulate research.

Prof I Mohamed (ANC) asked what had been done by the CSIR to ensure that alternate means of energy would accessible at much cheaper prices. He cited an example of solar panels that were very expensive. He enquired about the reasons that platinum mines experienced many rock falls and wanted to know why platinum mines received priority rather than gold mines.

Dr Walwyn replied that solar panels were made from expensive semi-conductors. The trend was to move to less expensive materials that would be more affordable. The platinum mines did not really have a problem with rock falls.

Mr V Pillay, Group Executive: Institutional Planning & Operations replied that there had been a lot of rock falls in gold mines, but not in platinum mines. Platinum mines had an average depth of 1500 metres and gold mines had a depth of 3000 to 4000 metres. There was a significant depth discrepancy in the two different commodities. The cost of extracting platinum was significantly higher than in gold mines because of the high incidence of water in platinum mines. The research conducted by the CSIR was largely focused on the best means of assisting the industry to attain a higher level of extraction than they had done previously.

The Chairperson commended the progress that was made on nano-technology and asked if it was utilised for medical problems and for astronomy and the environment. He reiterated Mr Ainslie’s question on conference themes. He said that points that should inform the corporate strategy were the Budget Speech, the State of the Nation Address, the estimates of national expenditure and budget review, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework budget process, the Government Plans and Priorities against the available resources and the annual report. He enquired about the tools that would be used for monitoring the proposed Human Capital Development.

Dr Walwyn replied that the CSIR was working in five separate areas that related to nano-technology and the other applications were related to advanced material that could be utilised in the electronic industry.

Mr P Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) asked about the differences and the relationship between the corporate strategy and corporate plan.

Mr J Blanche (DA) said that the mandate of the CSIR enabled it to intervene to solve the problem of power failures. He felt that the CSIR had to involve itself to avert such failures by coming up with timeous warnings that Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant would eventually run out of capacity. He asked about the role of CSIR in relation to Eskom.

Dr Walwyn replied that the CSIR had been conducting a lot of research in the energy sector. Several years ago the CSIR had done research on bio-fuels. It focused on the economics of using soya, ethanol and diesel as an alternative. He said that it was not the role of the CSIR to be the "Ombudsman" of Eskom. It was the duty of the CSIR to expose Eskom’s lack of planning. The research that the CSIR had been doing was commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology. Energy research in South Africa had been waiting for the formation of DERI and the Energy Research Bill.

Dr Sibisi replied that the CSIR could respond if they were called upon to comment on the planning undertaken by Eskom.

Dr Nkem Obote (ANC) asked why the CSIR did not recruit foreign scientists rather than just concentrating on employment equity. He cited the example of the German scientists that were recruited by America after World War 2. The German scientists were used to train American scientists.

Dr Walwyn replied that strategy was the higher objective while a plan was practical things that were supposed to be done by the organisation.

Dr S Sibisi replied that the CSIR was going to manage the Human Capital Development project by monitoring it on a quarterly basis.

Mr Dithebe asked about the recycling of discarded tyres as a source of energy, but raised a concern about the potential harm to the environment.

Dr Walwyn replied that the issue of using discarded tyres had been explored for many years. The preference would be to burn the tyres in cement kilns and the volatile components and the energy would be used in those kilns. There was ongoing research about using tyres as a road surfacing material, but the CSIR was not involved in that research.

Mr Ainslie (ANC) asked for clarity on the weakened state of the CSIR. What had caused this?

Dr Nkem-Abonte reiterated Mr Ainslie's concern regarding the weakened state of the organisation.

Dr Sibisi replied that there was an expectation in the late eighties that the funding of the CSIR was going to decrease. The leadership of the organisation decided to reposition the CSIR towards a more commercially oriented organisation. The purpose was to reach a state of self-sufficiency. The consequence of the move was the fact that long-term research projects moved away to other countries. The science and technology base was gradually eroded and that weakened the CSIR in the process. The stakeholders then revisited the situation and took a decision that investment had to be made in the "not so" commercial part of the organisation. He cited an example of developing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) that could be used by people with disabilities, because ICT companies were not interested for the reason that it was not commercially viable. He added that the situation was not as bleak as some people might imagine.

Dr Sibisi replied that the CSIR’s total budget was R1.1 billion of which R466 million was the parliamentary grant. The other money came from the Department of Agriculture.

Dr Walwyn said that the CSIR had to remove the Value-added Tax, and that there was a R35 million grant from the Department of Trade and Industry for managing the National Metrology Lab.

The Chairperson enquired about the type of research undertaken on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS).

Dr Sibisi replied that the CSIR was not working on IKS in isolation from other projects. The research done on using flora for pharmaceutical use was part of IKS. The input made by the local communities was an important part of the project. The communities had been using those plants for generations. The role of the CSIR was to isolate the active compound and look at the toxicity of that plant.

The meeting was adjourned.


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