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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
10 March 2006
NATIONAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION BUSINESS PLAN 2006/07 – 2008/09
Chairperson: Mr E N N Ngcobo (ANC)
Documents handed out:
National Research Foundation: Powerpoint presentation
National Research Foundation: Annual Report [available its website]
National Research Foundation: Business Plan
National Research Foundation: List of grants [available its website]
National Research Foundation website
The Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation presented the business plan to the Committee. He clarified that although Treasury required institutions to present a five-year plan, this current plan was based upon Memorandum of Understanding Funding which was fixed, rather than being based upon budgets which might not be feasible if the funding was not approved. He summarised that the NRF’s mandate was to promote and support research, through funding human resource development and providing research facilities, to facilitation the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in science and technology, in order to improve the quality of life for South Africans. NRF’s work therefore encompassed science advancement, knowledge generation, technology promotion, and innovation and enterprise development. Its national research facilities concentrated on research that was clearly measurable against South African priorities. The CEO summarised the work done by the units and detailed some of their programmes.
Questions were raised by members on the bursary grants, and whether the current research was truly relevant to the needs of South Africa; whether the work of NRF addressed the needs of the second economy; what steps were necessary to achieve the NRF goal of increasing the number of PhD graduates; the high turnover of staff in some of the NRF units. Members also asked for target figures set for the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement.
The CEO called for the Committee’s assistance in engaging actively with other parliamentary portfolio committees, to ensure that the scientific research councils were able to meet their targets and goals.
The Chairman welcomed the National Research Foundation (NRF) to the meeting and reminded the CEO that the Committee, when being briefed, wished institutions to present:
- a clear statement of the overall objectives reflecting Departmental policies
- setting of measurable and appropriate objectives
- an established link between the objectives and the budget
- a clear statement of realistic deliverables in terms of the plan
- a clear linking of coherent components
- proof that the plans were consistent with the annual report
- tenable assumptions for the future
- an indication of how strategic plans were aligned with the mandate, and how they aligned also to priorities set by national and provincial governments
- a translation of the plans into accurate costing
Presentation of the business plan by the National Research Foundation
Dr Khotso Mokhele (Chief Executive Officer (CEO): National Research Foundation (NRF)) thanked the Chairperson for his introduction and requested that the expectations outlined by the Chairperson should be conveyed to other institutions to assist them when preparing briefings.
Dr Mokhele tabled a profile of the science councils. The Performing Science councils, such as Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Research (CSIR), Human Science Research Council (HSRC), Agricultural Research Council (ARC), Council for Geoscience (CGS) and Mintek conducted sector-specific research in their own laboratories and about 70% of their budget related to staffing. The Medical Research Council conducted its research through grant funds. NRF had a dual mandate. It received some grant funding to raise public awareness of science and technology, but also ran national research facilities, where its research focused on national priorities, using external researchers and supervising unique national equipment. NRF managed these laboratories on behalf of the science and technical community, which included South African and international universities and science institutions.
The NRF was mandated by the National Research Foundation Act, 1998, to promote and support scientific research through funding, in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in the fields of science and technology, including indigenous knowledge, and thereby contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of South Africans. The business of the NRF was aligned to this mandate. Its driving vision was to achieve a society that was economically viable in all sectors, free of the diseases attendant on poverty, steeped in a culture of humanity and knowledge. In doing so it also played a role within the National System of Innovation (NSI) in interfacing with other councils, governments departments (including Trade and Industry, Labour, Environmental Affairs, Education, Minerals and Energy), non-government organisations, higher education institutions, industry, and the international global science fraternity.
Dr Mokhele clarified that NRF was presenting its business plan over the three-year Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) cycle, because this enabled the NRF to present measurable outputs. Some of the projections seemed conservative, but this was deliberate as the NRF could not guarantee that it would be able to secure funding in addition to the MTEF allocation. The corporate strategy, however, did comply with Treasury’s requirement for a five-year planning cycle, and the strategy was updated on an annual basis. There was a five-year research plan.
NRF, following its mandate, primarily aimed to increase the numbers of qualified scientists, and create quality knowledge in prioritised areas that addressed the national and African continent development needs. It aimed to use the knowledge to create tangible benefits within state-of-the-art infrastructure. Dr Mokhele summarised the structure of the NRF and tabled an organogram that outlined the key outcomes, processes and programmes of the units within the NRF. Outcomes included creation of science and technology human capital, stimulation and enhancement of innovation and enhancement of entrepreneurship. Public outreach was a critical component, dealt with through RISA (Research Innovation Support and Advancement) and SAASTA (South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement). Processes included science advancement, knowledge generation, technical promotion, and innovation and enterprise development. All were aimed at improving the quality of life for South Africans.
Human resource development, a priority area, involved a radical shift in vision. Substantial investment in human capital was needed to ensure a national focus on development, rather than on the current focus of sales and distribution of foreign products. By 2024 NRF aimed to produce six PhD graduates per 1000 head of population, as opposed to the current ratio of 0.5 to every 1000. This would require 6 000 PhD graduates per annum, compared to the current 800. The NRF believed that this was attainable. The CSIR laboratories, which housed some of the best training infrastructures and scientists, were currently training 200 PhD students. NRF was trying to involve other commercial institutions, such as Sasol and Eskom, in the training programmes. The NRF could and should reach its training targets by deploying the entire South African training skills base, within and outside the universities. Employment opportunities would be created as the structures changed, and businesses should employ PhD graduates, who had excellent skills not only in their narrow science discipline, but also in the gathering and interpretation of data, across a number of industries. Ongoing discussions at all levels would ensure that business and commerce appreciated the need for training and utilisation of science skills.
SAASTA’s main focus was public outreach. The increase in PhD numbers needed more awareness, and NRF therefore participated in all levels of school education, career information and media communication (such as SALT, an initiative that sparked media interest independent of any NRF publicity). Challenges facing SAASTA included: cementing better relationships with the national and provincial departments of education; redeveloping the Johannesburg Observatory site as a multi-disciplinary science park (with a budget of R7.5 million); development of the National Zoological Gardens Life Science Centre, (with a R2 million grant from the Department of Science and Technology(DST)); the natural science communication programme and development of science materials for schools.
RISA’s challenges included: investment levels for HR development, including the establishment of Chairs of Research; the rollout of a post-doctoral fellowship programme; linking social sciences, humanities and law into the innovation arenas; partnerships with higher education institutions; the challenges of redevelopment of course materials that the higher education institution mergers had created; and IT support. NRF had recently created an on-line facility for research applications, which was working well. However, it needed to improve its software capacity and systems for transmission of data, for instance from SALT to researchers. Problems arose through the prohibitive costs of data transmission in South Africa, and inadequate national facilities for transmission of data.
The challenges for the National Facilities unit included promotion of flagship programmes. SALT had been an extremely successful flagship programme that had generated increased enrolment in the national space science programme at UCT. Building of the multi-treatment hospital at the MRMC (Major Radiation Medicine Centre) at iThemba had linked science and technology and health. A workshop was scheduled for the following month at the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory (HMO) to agree their programme. Dr Mokhele presented other programmes and summarised their activities; these included SAIAB (Aquatic Biodiversity programme ), SAAO (Astronomy observatory) HART (Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomical Observatory); SAEON (ecological research); iThemba (accelerator based sciences); National Zoological Gardens (conservation of bio-diversity). Funding problems prevented maximum impact for these programmes, both at development level, and in ensuring public access to facilities – he cited SALT data transfer problems as an example.
Dr Mokhele reiterated that human capital development was the major priority of the NRF. Ideally the funding on existing bursaries should be raised. He suggested that R20 000 bursaries should ideally rise to R50 000; PhD bursaries of R35 000 to R80 0000, and post-doctoral bursaries to a realistically high level to attract and retain researchers. In addition to this, more bursaries still needed to be created to increase the number of graduates. In order to achieve their aims the NRF would require a conservative R1.2 billion, but was faced with the reality of having received only R550 million by way of MTEF funding. Funding from the DST core grant, contractual and sundry income for the last year had amounted to R914 million whereas an amount of R4 billion would be needed to reach the targets outlined.
Other immediate challenges facing the NRF were the amendment of the NRF Act; clarification of roles with DST so that there was greater synergy between the scientific entities; structuring an appropriate and satisfactory relationship with the Department of Education; accessing funds allocated through the MTEF, presently with the Department, of around R1.2 million; dealing with the shortfall occasioned by the due diligence survey of the National Zoological Gardens; the unfunded liability of R60 million for post-retirement medical benefits, dating back to 1994; and staff capacity.
Mr G Boinamo (DA) asked what steps were being taken to raise the numbers of PhD graduates, and whether the target of 6 000 per annum could be attained. Dr K Mokhele (NRF) replied that insufficient funding was the key obstacle, but that if NRF succeeded in persuading the entire expertise base to respond to the challenge the target was not unrealistic. The Director General of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had already agreed to put additional funding into joint CSIR, NRF and university programmes. More work was necessary to create sufficient synergy with higher education, the private and research sectors. Dr Mokhele cited Finland as an example of an economy that had developed through productive cooperation between higher education and industry. He suggested that the portfolio committee could certainly assist by engaging in discussion with other portfolio committees to agree on priorities and a joint approach. Public outreach would hopefully also raise awareness and expertise at a pre-tertiary level.
Mr A Ainslie (ANC) asked whether the NRF took the needs of the second economy into account, and whether the research done impacted directly in the area of sustainable livelihoods. He asked whether there was a target set for SAASTA, in terms of numbers of schools, children and adults reached, and how schools could access SAASTA programmes. He also asked whether the high turnover of staff, identified during the past year at RISA, had stabilised, and whether staff imbalances had been addressed.
Dr Mokhele replied that the NRF had deliberately not divided itself into different units, so that its overarching focus was to find answers to the problems faced by society. All the science disciplines should work together in finding solutions. Eradication of poverty had been identified as a major priority, and NRF researchers had been asked to make proposals that were directly tested against the goal of sustainable livelihood. Sustainable livelihood was defined as the establishment of a society permitting a good livelihood at present, while preserving for the future. Dr Mokhele tabled a register of grants that indicated precisely what research in different areas was currently funded by the NRF.
Ms M Pienaar (Manager: Corporate Governance, NRF) reported that the NRF had purposely left target numbers out of the business plan. SAASTA was still in the process of developing new indicators for advancement. Although the numbers of people contacted by the various outreach programmes were good, the impact of those contacts needed to be measured – for instance, did the visit by schoolchildren result in different questions being asked, and did the school change its teaching. The impact also needed to be correlated also in terms of race and gender. NRF’s final report would identify the qualitative as well as the quantitative results of outreach programmes.. Ms B Damonse (Director: SAASTA, NRF) reported that the NRF reached schools primarily through the provincial departments of education as outreach needed to take place within the school system as well as outside the formal education sector. The NRF also placed open calls on their website and individuals and institutions could access NRF through the website.
Dr K Mokhele (CEO) expanded upon outreach, and also addressed a question raised by Dr I Mohamed (ANC) in regard to maths and science teachers. Sutherland schools had employed no maths and science teachers at matriculation level. NRF, liaising with the provincial department of education, had succeeded in creating an appointment of a suitably qualified teacher who also acted as the area outreach officer for the NRF. By the end of the year every Sutherland pupil, and pupils from all surrounding areas, would visit the SALT. NRF therefore played a proactive role in outreach. NRF was also debating whether schools could be exempted from paying entrance fees, which were identified as a hindrance to knowledge. If so, it would need to identify and tap into additional sources of income, such as businesses.
On the question of staffing, Dr K Mokhele replied that RISA that there was a high turnover, primarily of young black researchers. The NRF Board had decided to structure the NRF salary scale in line with higher education scales. This made it impossible for NRF to keep its young black managers. 95% of those resigning moved to jobs in government, including DST. Four managers had been lost to DST within the last 3 years, and regrettably the new employers did not fully utilise special skills.
Professor K Baruth-Ram (NRF) dealt with the position of iThemba, which had faced severe challenges in transformation. When NRF took over one of the laboratories from Wits University, the infrastructure had virtually collapsed, but students were still being registered. Space and skills were badly utilised, and many staff were unhappy with the robust approach that NRF had been forced to adopt. The process of transformation had been difficult and often stormy, but there had been a significant turnaround. Professor Baruth-Ram would head iThemba until January 2007, when his current Deputy would take over.
Professor I Mohamed (ANC) asked whether all research done at the NRF correlated directly to the priorities of the community. Dr K Mokhele (NRF) replied that the relevance of research had been raised very pertinently when SALT was opened, and some researchers were unwilling to shift the focus of their research to the new facility. NRF insisted that the science driver had to change and researchers who were unwilling to make the changes were asked to leave so that their salaries could be released. Two researchers had left Sutherland, but had been able to be replaced by 5 junior researchers whose fields were now directly relevant to South African needs. In all cases, research proposals were assessed against national objectives.
The Chairperson and Dr I Mohamed (ANC) asked for further explanations on the post-retirement benefit liability. Dr Mokhele (CEO: NRF) explained that the liability figure had been fixed by the auditors and remained stated as a liability as the NRF had not actually set the money aside, although it had sufficient cash-flow to do so in any year, preferring instead to utilise the funds for bursaries. From 1995, employees (other than those within 5 years of retirement date) had been asked to change to a defined benefit system, and from 1995 no employees were offered post-retirement benefits; it was unfortunate that this decision affected mostly young black employees. Similar situations applied in other institutions, including the Office of the Auditor General.
Mr A Mhlangeni (ANC) asked what amendments were required to the National Research Foundation Act. Dr K Mokhele replied that the current wording of the Act did not specifically mandate the public outreach programme. Since substantial funding was invested in this work, an amendment to the Act would remove any danger of the challenges to the NRF about funding of such projects. Other minor amendments would tidy up wording anomalies and some inconsistencies with other legislation. The Regulations would be amended to clarify that the NRF Chairman be appointed by consultation between the Minister and the NRF Board.
The Chairperson expressed his full support of NRF’s vision of promoting full interaction between science and society. He asked who was accountable for the Research Chairs. Dr K Mokhele replied that in addition to receiving the core grant, NRF and DST had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in respect of partnership ventures that were identified by DST and developed by NRF. It had been decided that the development of science could not take place with "subsistence funding" and that centres of excellence should be established and comprehensively funded to further the aims of DST, through NRF. The Chairs were worth a maximum of R10 million per annum, and although the centres at which they were established were multi-party, the person appointed to the Chair agreed to use his or her specific resources to drive the discipline outside the university boundaries, and transform his or her discipline within the country. There was therefore a clear role both for the institution and the individual.
The Chairperson expressed special thanks to Dr K Mokhele for a most informative and excellently worded presentation. He undertook that the Committee would engage with its counterparts in relevant areas to try to address some of the problems raised.
The meeting adjourned.
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