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ARTS, CULTURE, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
21 August 2001
FOUNDATION FOR EDUCATION, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY ON PROMOTION ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Documents handed out:
Chairperson: Dr M Serote (ANC)
The Foundation for Education, Science and Technology spoke on the importance of science and technology and the strategies of the Foundation to promote public appreciation of science and technology; to promote research and development and to attract more students to study science, technology and mathematics. The Committee welcome this presentation although there were some complaints about the absence of the role to be played by research councils in the promotion of science. Further it was pointed out that there were few teachers who were capable of teaching these subjects at school. This problem needed to be addressed first before money could be spend on researchers.
Dr Pouris of the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology (FEST) made the spoke on the importance of public understanding and appreciation of science and technology. International experience of science, national recognition of the importance of science, efforts and strategies of the foundation for education, science and technology to promote public understanding of science, research and development were the sub-topics that guided Dr Pouris's presentation.
International experience and the recognition of importance of science and technology
Dr Pouris quoted a recent research report of the US National Science Foundation which spoke of increasing public understanding and appreciation of science and technology which is of paramount importance". Similar statements were quoted about the importance of science in other countries. It was also recognised that the major challenge facing developing countries was to make science and technology an essential part of the culture of the people.
Science research and development in Australia depends on public funding, and this had given an appreciation of science to their communities. The United Kingdom government has expended much money to build science centres in order to promote public understanding and appreciation of science and to bring science and society together and to encourage students to study science, mathematics and biology. It also has a large budget for science activities at school and research councils, earmarked for public understanding of science and technology not for marketing as it was with the research councils in South Africa.
Another country understanding the importance of science was China. China had recently built 24 science centres in order to promote and close the gap between science and society.
Local recognition of the importance of science and technology
Dr Pouris quoted the White Paper on Science and Technology in South Africa (1996), Dr Mseleku, Director General in the Department of Education, and the Minister of Art, Culture, Science and Technology, Dr Ben Ngubane. The quoted statements all acknowledge the importance of science and public understanding of science. " We need to signify science and take it into the mainstream culture in which everyone can participate on equal bases".
Dr Pouris said that the fact that the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology was considering a new bill to establish the Institute for Promotion of Science and Technology, was an indication that South Africa was slowly moving in the right direction in recognizing the importance of science and technology.
Efforts and strategies of the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology to promote public understanding and appreciation of science and technology
FEST would like to see the promotion of science in order to link science and society. The Bill would be giving these possibilities to the new institute, to initiate new support programmes that would strengthen public understanding and appreciation of science and technology. Also this institute would work as a consultative body to promote the support of studies and to promote the provision of scientific information.
Dr Pouris said that promotion of science constitute three pillars:
- A good stream of students to study science and mathematics
- A political system that understood and appreciate science and technology
- A large number of the people on the streets who liked and enjoyed science and technology
The first pillar is that of researchers. Studies had showed that the money received by researchers in this country was adequate and was in line with international norms. It was not that South Africa lacked money for research, but it did not have enough money to produce researchers. The second pillar of science, which is the most important issue in the public understanding of science, is the political will. If there was no understanding of science and technology within the political environment, funding for the promotion of science and technology was going to dry out. The promotion of science depended on the support of the relevant parliamentary committee and of the executive government. The third pillar was the society itself. The society did not understand and appreciate science and technology the innovative system of the country would go down.
Consequently, FEST had developed three trusts to encourage these pillars. These are:
- "Science and technology for tomorrow", focusing on the youth and trying to increase the stream of scientists and engineers from universities.
- "Science for decision-makers" directed at policy-makers, executive and bureaucrats
- "Science for all" to support the public understanding of science.
- Production of its magazine distributed in certain secondary schools.
- Arranging competitions and Olympiads for science and technology in different languages
- Museums of science and technology with hands-on exhibits. FEST had developed capacity for the production of scientific exhibits.
Science and technology research and development
Dr Pouris produced graphs to compare the percentages of students graduating in science and technology with those that graduated in social sciences and humanities. He said that 75% of student in South Africa graduated in social sciences and humanities, while only 25% of student graduated from science and technology. This was unlike Australia where 70% of students graduated in science and technology and only 30% of students graduated in social sciences and humanities. This had raised a critical problem for the country, which need to be addressed by the Department of Education and DACST by granting more funds for research and development and promotion of Science and Technology.
FEST had proposed creating the dual funding support system. There would be two streams of funding, one as block fund to the school authorities, the second to be given directly to the science teachers and students after evaluation. This system could attract many students to study science and it was followed all over the world, at university level. For this approach to work government had to institutionalize it.
About "Science for decision-makers", Dr Pouris said that FEST would produce science reports that would be posted to the Portfolio Committee on a regular basis. These reports had information about what is happening internationally and locally. FEST welcomed any suggestion from the Committee about areas in which the Committee needed assistance from FEST. Dr Pouris promised that FEST was prepared to bring international and local scientists to brief the Committee on issues of importance for their work.
To promote understanding of science and technology, the Department through FEST had organized a successful national science week and it was organizing a conference to be held in Cape Town in December 2002.
Another approached recommended by FEST was that of utilizing the existing infrastructure for the promotion of science and technology. This includes all universities, research councils, botanical gardens, zoos and museums. A survey had been conducted to determine people's level of interest and their perception about science and technology. It had been found that most South Africans were interested in science-related issues. Compared with other international countries, South African was found to be the most optimistic about the usefulness of science and technology in their lives.
Research and development expenditure
Dr Pouris said that the creation of wealth and economic growth resulted from new ideas and innovation, new products and better processes to increase production. Most countries invested large amounts of money in their research and development initiatives. He mentioned Nigeria as enlightened on this issue. South Africa used to be ahead of all African states as far as funding for research and development is concerned, but this was beginning to change. South Africa was falling behind big companies such as IBM in funding research and development. IBM was said to be spending 3 to 4 times more than South Africa on research and development. South Africa presently spends 0,4% of its national budget on research and development.
Another approach recommended by FEST was that government had to develop a dedicated infrastructure for the public understanding of science and technology. FEST proposed the utilization of the existing infrastructure like the public science centre in Cape Town. Another recommendation from FEST was that of using the community art centers, so that public could have cultural and scientific activities under the same roof. There are many countries that had successfully linked art and science centres. The department was preparing a memorandum to create nine provincial science centres as well as mobile or resident science centres for every area. This plan still had to be approved by the Minister.
Mr Matebe (ANC) asked Dr Pouris to explain more about the level of optimism in South Africa as compared to other countries regarding the usefulness of science and technology. Another ANC member asked about the reliability of FEST surveys.
Dr Pouris answered that they had found out that there was high optimism about the usefulness of science on South African streets at the moment, but they also found that this optimism was falling internationally especially in the United States.
Ms Van Wyk (NP) suggested that this presentation be made to the portfolio committees of education and finance because of the roles played by these in decision-making for the promotion of science and technology. She commented on the role that could be played by the SABC in the promotion of science and technology. BBC television had good programmes and the SABC could take the basic format of these programmes and remake them in the South African context. She supported the utilization of museums, botanic gardens and zoos for the promotion of science and technology.
Ms Baloyi (ANC) raised a concern about the state of science and mathematics at school level. She said that it was not that children were not willing to study mathematics and science, but the problem was that there were few teachers who were capable of teaching these subjects at school. This problem needed to be addressed first before money could be spend on researchers. She cited the United States where children were taught science and mathematics from pre-school level. She supported the dual funding support system approach proposed by FEST to be used by the Department but she was skeptical about the direct funding given to institutions, as their research might not be of national interest. She asked if FEST proposed any coordination for this dual support system approach to ensure that any publicly funded research responded to issues of national interest.
Dr Pouris answered that there was common ground between FEST and the Committee that funding had to be given to schools to increase the number of student who would study science and technology, as well as being given for research in higher education. The decrease in the number of students studying science and technology was caused by the fact that funds given to higher institutions was not being spent appropriately, hence FEST proposed this dual support system approach to correct the situation.
Ms Mbobo (ANC) supported the utilization of community art centres for promotion of public understanding of science and technology.
Dr Serote (ANC) commented that the presentation was informative. He reminded the Committee of the agreement reached between the Committee and FEST at the Robben Island workshop, which was to assist each other in certain key areas. This presentation had correctly outlined the role that needed to be played by the Committee such as pushing for more funding for the promotion of science and technology plus informing the Committee about what was happening internationally in science and technology. His concern was how can South Africa and the African continent be compared with the rest of the world, while its state of affairs was that of complete neglect and exploitation. The presentation did not mention strategies to solve problems faced by the country and the continent. There were many new developments in the country and in Africa such as the Africa Union, urban renewal projects and rural development and their committee was relevant to all these developments. He said that the Committee had expected to be armed by FEST to be able to engage in debates of this kind. Also not appearing in the presentation was information about Indigenous Knowledge Systems, which was seen by the committee as the best tool for the promotion of public understanding of science and technology. He further complained that the presentation did not outline the role to be played by research councils in promoting public understanding of science and technology.
Dr Pouris suggested that questions relating to the work of the research councils must be referred to these councils directly or to the Department which coordinated their functions. He said that the institute for the promotion for public understanding of science and technology did not exist yet, so they did not have the right to ask information from these councils and that these councils were not present at Robben Island while they were invited to come. So the committee had to play its political and strategic role to engage these councils.
Dr Serote commented that these research councils think that they are not accountable to Parliament and they did not care about the promotion of science and technology.
Ms Van Wyk (NP) asked if there had been any meeting to engage these councils since the Robben island workshop - to which the answer was no. She further said that she doubted whether these research councils gave the right information to the department about their work. She suggested that the Committee needed to engage these institutions more directly.
Dr Serote (ANC) recommended that there was a need for the committee to facilitate meetings:
- with the SABC regarding the promotion of public understanding of science and technology,
- to engage the research councils regarding their work and their role in the promotion of science and technology
- with the portfolio committees of education and finance on the issue of the promotion of science and technology.
The meeting was adjourned.
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