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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
24 March 2006
NATIONAL ADVISORY COUNCIL ON INNOVATION 2006/07 BUDGET AND STRATEGIC PLAN: BRIEFING
Chairperson: Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)
Documents handed out:
The National Advisory Council on Innovation presented information on its 2006/07 strategic plan and budget to the Committee. The Council fulfilled an advisory function to the Minister of Science and Technology. Science and technology would be promoted at all levels. Interaction between key role-players would be encouraged. The Council’s functional structure was outlined including policy targets. Detail on the budget was also presented.
Members asked various questions including the relationship between the Council and tertiary institutions, the relationship between traditional belief systems and science, attempts to use science to transform the second economy, examples of advice provided to the Minister, plans to improve public awareness of science, the need to improve mathematics results and the dire shortage of qualified individuals at scientific institutions.
The Chairperson instructed the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) to provide measurable objectives in their presentation. He referred to certain National Treasury guidelines that directed organisations to align strategy to budget allocations. The vision should cover a five-year period. The mission statement would indicate how to implement the vision. Concrete outcomes and targets were needed. The agency should achieve quality returns at reasonable costs.
National Advisory Council on Innovation presentation
Prof T Marwala (Chief Executive Officer) referred to the statutory mandate of the Council and its contribution to economic development. NACI had to advise the Minister of Science and Technology on scientific innovation and had to strive to improve science and technology activities in South Africa. The integrity of research findings was critical. Innovation should occur in an interactive context involving various role-players. Research had to gravitate around national government policy. The Council intended to promote enhanced public awareness of science and technology. NACI made use of internal expertise and external service providers where necessary to meet objectives. The Council’s functional structure was outlined and certain strategic thrusts explained.
Dr B Marais (Head: Secretariat) presented detail on policy priorities and targets for 2006/7. The Council adhered to evidence-based policy development. The impact of Research and Development spending would be determined. Main priorities in the budget were outlined.
The Chairperson declared that the Council was intended to be a small entity and fulfilled an advisory function to the Minister directly and to the government as a whole indirectly. Small numbers of quality scientists could produce significant breakthroughs. Adequate finances should be provided to facilitate effective operation.
Mr G Boinamo (DA) asked whether the Council regarded tertiary institutions as producing meaningful research outcomes. He asked whether traditional belief systems could be incorporated into the science and technology environment. African culture believed that lightning could be caused by human intervention.
Mr A Ainslie (ANC) sought clarity on the role of the Council in attempts to transform the second economy and alleviate poverty. He asked what advice was provided to the Minister to improve linkages with the second economy. Examples of methods to raise the level of awareness of science and technology should be recounted to Members. He asked whether an independent audit on completed work had been concluded that indicated adherence to national objectives. A certain level of co-ordination with other relevant agencies was required to encourage progress. He asked whether research findings were intended for the Minister only or were published more widely.
Mr P Nefolovhodwe (PAC) referred to applications from the second economy for innovation funds and noted the disproportionate influence of external evaluators in rejecting applications. The mindset of external evaluators had to be altered to understand the specific needs of the local second economy. He asked whether NACI played a role in advising the Minister on how to meet the demand for scientists. Clarity was sought on the gap that had to be addressed between the first and the second economy. Current development initiatives tended to undermine local Black economic players in previously disadvantaged areas.
Prof I Mohamed (ANC) asked whether NACI had advised government on the electricity generation shortfalls. More power stations were needed to meet demand. Research and development funding had to be increased to improve output. Research that had immediate application tended to be supported to the detriment of other types of research. More support should be directed at initiatives to promote mathematics that served as the bedrock of science and technology. Certain inferior tertiary institutions were not producing graduates of quality while receiving large amounts of state funding.
Mr S Dithebe (ANC) hoped that NACI would be a successful bidder to join the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. The recent power outages in the Western Cape could serve as a valuable opportunity to expand public education on energy conservation and science in general. A synergy was needed between photonics and nanotechnology in the scientific arena.
Mr B Mnyandu (ANC) noted that the Chief Financial Officer was the only full-time member of the Council and asked whether this was an optimal arrangement.
Prof Marwala responded that NACI did not intend to take over the research function of tertiary institutions. On the contrary, government would continue to assist research endeavours at the tertiary level. Lighting was produced in laboratories on a regular basis but human involvement in lighting strikes fell outside the realm of scientific investigation. The Innovation Fund sought to assist scientific investigation that failed to obtain venture capital backing. Applications for funding were reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Raised concerns would be conveyed to the Innovation Fund. An undisputed definition of the second economy was difficult to identify. A multitude of indicators existed such as life expectancy and education levels. Individuals within the second economy had to be educated on science and technology to help bridge the digital divide. Any development initiatives had to ensure sustainability of the local economy.
Prof Marwala added that an Eskom representative sat on the Council Board and more manpower was required for electricity installations. Attempts would be made to increase local production of necessary infrastructure and related items for security purposes. The National Research Foundation (NRF) would be involved in the setting of appropriate research priorities. Mathematics had to be promoted as the foundation of science and technology. The biotechnology subcommittee within NACI was an important entity and members would be appointed shortly. International lessons on energy savings would be incorporated into local initiatives. The intention was to retain outsiders on the Council as part-time members in order to facilitate skills transfer and maintain an independent oversight role.
Dr Marais stated that a number of advisory documents had been forwarded to Cabinet such as an advanced management and logistics technology strategy. The matter was no longer NACI’s responsibility after submission. Recommendations on technical skills development had also been submitted. The Council and Minister would interact on a regular basis. No anticipatory research had been done on future electricity demand and supply. Lessons from the recent power outages would be placed on the next Council agenda. An independent audit of NACI had been conducted two years ago. An external moderator undertook an annual performance audit that was submitted to the Minister. Co-ordination with other relevant agencies was a priority and NACI was a member of other bodies such as the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The intention was to avoid duplication of research and educational activities. Reports would be made available as discussion documents and the circulation list was currently being revised.
The Chairperson noted that a major challenge was to find meaningful employment for educated and skilled individuals and not to allow their continued marginalisation. Excuses of old equipment and lack of capacity could no longer be entertained. Institutions had to employ qualified staff to address weaknesses. Parliament had to ensure adequate levels of oversight. A key distinction between the first and second economies was indicated by varying degrees of education and access to finance. NACI had to develop a strong relationship with Parliament and include the opinions of Members in advice to the Minister. The Committee should provide effective oversight regarding attempts to reduce the digital divide. Real transformation had to occur in terms of human resource development.
The meeting was adjourned.
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