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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
12 September 2006
DEPARTMENT 2005/06 ANNUAL REPORT: BRIEFING
Acting Chairperson: Ms B T Ngcobo (ANC)
Documents handed out:
Department of Science and Technology Annual Report 2005/2006 (available at www.dst.gov.za)
Department of Science and Technology Annual Report 2005/2006 Power point presentation
The Department of Science and Technology presented its 2005/06 Annual Report listing progress and achievements over the past year. Highlights included the Department’s spending of 98.84% of voted funds, the approval of the Intellectual Property framework by Parliament, the inauguration of the South African Large Telescope in November 2005 by President Mbeki, a new focus on poverty alleviation and the securing of funding for Research and Development. The Committee had various questions about the recent computer system crash that had led to the loss of the Department's Fixed Asset Register, the high number of vacancies in the Department and the African Institute of South Africa proposed move to Department of Foreign Affairs. They also asked for clarity and details on various new initiatives and about collaboration between departments in the science and technology field.
The acting Chairperson (elected 12/09/2006) opened the meeting suggesting that the Department’s presentation take an hour before questions are asked.
Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General, Department of Science and Technology (DST) since April 2006, thanked the Committee and the Chairperson for allowing the Department to present its annual report instead of the National Research Foundation (NRF), which had been scheduled to present their annual report at this meeting. He conveyed his desire to present the highlights from the various institutions first so that the Committee has a good sense of the context in which the public entities are operating. He hoped the Committee would allow the NRF to present at another time.
DST Annual Report Presentation
Dr Mjwara presented the annual report by explaining the Research and Development (R&D) Framework and the progress of the five basic programmes within the Department. The focus and some highlights of each programme were as follows: Programme 1 is the Corporate Services programme where the Department has performed well, spending 98.84% of voted funds and having NRF interns spread over a range of the sciences. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is being transferred to the Department of Science and Technology. Programme 2 comprised Science and Technology Expert Services. There has been progress in a framework for Intellectual Property and the draft legislation for Astronomy Geographical Advantage areas, both of which are being considered by Cabinet. The Office of the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems has also been established. Programme 3 concerns International Co-operation and Resources. The Department has strengthened various international relationships and is successfully bidding to host the Square Kilometre Array, which would be the world’s largest radio telescope. This is in addition to a bid to host the third International Laboratory. R80 million in funding from overseas has also been secured. Programme 4 is the Frontier of Science and Technology programme. Various new initiatives are being developed, led by the opening of the South African Large Telescope (SALT) by President Mbeki and the Karoo Array Telescope. Human capital has been a focus in this programme and included the creation of 20 Research Chairs and various Department Post Doctoral positions. More Centres of Excellence are being planned in addition to the existing six in the country. Programme 5 comprised the Government Sector Programmes and Coordination and includes tax incentives for Research and Development as well as a Social Impact Programme. The presentation highlighted the financial statements and human resource statistics from the Annual Report.
The Chairperson thanked the Department for the clarity of the presentation and for their summary of the year’s progress. The floor was opened for questions.
Mr A R Ainslie (ANC) felt that very little was said about poverty alleviation in the written annual report, though he was heartened to hear it mentioned in the presentation. Science and technology are very important for poverty alleviation and not enough is done in co-ordination with other departments. The DST should lead other departments in this. He asked if there is a lack of co-ordination and what the progress on existing programmes is, for example the Hydroponics project in the North West province. He suggested that the Committee have a session on the application of science and technology for poverty alleviation.
noted the Emphasis of Matter in the Auditor General's 2005/06 Report about the
loss of the Department's Fixed Asset Register due to a computer crash. He
wanted to know what had happened to fixed asset register, who was responsible,
how the responsible party was being dealt with and what backup measures would
be implemented in the future. Lastly, he wanted an update on the Department’s
Mr F Mahomed (ANC) also asked for details on the Emphasis of Matter in the Auditor General's otherwise unqualified audit report. He asked why there were so many vacancies in the Department and whether it was due to other jobs being more lucrative. It would be beneficial for the Committee to engage more with the Department especially on oversight visits and at relevant conferences. He asked how the Department was dealing with the petrol industry as a challenge. He asked if equity had been reached with regards to women’s role in the Department and what role small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) played in science and technology.
Prof I J Mohamed (ANC) asked if the DST post-doctoral fellowships were under supervision and in what areas they were. Further, what health innovations has the Department been a part of; why is there a high vacancy rate and how much of the engineering of the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) is done in South Africa? With regards to the 20 Research Chairs; who selected them and whether the DST funded them in various institutions?
Dr Mjwara said that he would pass the relevant questions on to his colleagues and answer the rest himself. He agreed that poverty alleviation was not emphasised in the annual report. The Department is trying to implement a new governance framework where cross-cutting issues were funded. For example, the water and forestry sector looked to the role of biotechnology and ways of using dry sanitation. The Department was in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Agricultural sector on essential oils and aquaculture. They are beginning to enhance the co-ordination between departments with the hope that a full landscape can be presented in the future. The Department is also looking at an institutional arrangement to house these projects. The existing projects are being monitored and the Department was looking at rolling them out on a bigger scale, but the subject required a separate presentation.
With regards to the restructuring of the Department, he assured the Committee that it was only small changes and not a real restructuring. Some of the programmes would be refocused. Programmes 4 and 5 would have name changes and would be refocused. Programme 4 would focus more on people and Programme 5 while undergoing a name change would remain essentially the same in focus. The other three programmes will remain unchanged. He voiced his commitment to including the Committee in oversight trips and conferences as well as his regret at having not thought of this previously. He also said that biofuels were part of a government department consortium. Once the economics have been dealt with, the Department will examine what crops varieties are best suitable, how to improve crops and how to increase extraction efficacy. The Department wanted to co-operate extensively with Brazil as biofuels are one of their foci. Incubators have been running for a while and will continue to do so.
SMMEs’ involvement with science and technology has been successful with the Tshumisano Trust projects. The Department can do better and will continue to look for ways in which this can be done. The Post-doctoral fellowships were only in Science Council areas and not the DST. One example of a health innovation that the Department has made is in the development of a paraffin gel which is not highly inflammable, thus reducing the risk of fires in peoples’ homes. Parabolic dishes must, necessarily be parabolic to capture radiant energy. The KAT was engineered entirely in South Africa, one level of innovation being in the novel use of composite materials, and the other in its design. There have also been digital signal processing innovations from young people in Cape Town. Through a partnership with the Northern Cape a new higher learning institute will be set up. The Research Chairs are chosen by a panel composed of the NRF and DST who consider all applications. They have not yet been announced, but they would be made available as soon as they are awarded.
Mr Tjaart van der Walt (Finance Manager, DST) suggested that the blame for the system crash could not be entirely placed on the consultants but was the result of the whole system having been loaded on a local machine. It will be changed to run on a network. It is also the first year that the system had been implemented, which could be an additional factor in its failure. The missing asset numbers were the result of old furniture being sent to schools. Independent consultants have been appointed to audit a new system but the old system will probably be used as it was still adequate. There is, as yet, no asset report. The problem is that departments have their own systems to track their assets. No action can be taken until the report is complete. The individual responsible for the crash is a low level official and could not really be held accountable for the system’s failure.
Mr Dan Moagi (Acting General Manager: Corporate Service and Governance, DST) in explaining the high number of vacancies said that in job levels one to eight, employee losses are due to movement between departments. In levels nine to eleven there is a large salary gap and employees are attracted to jobs that are more lucrative. Skilled people are difficult to retain. The Department is not, however, suffering as staff from the Councils was filling in. Short term contracts are better because it is difficult to get rid of people who are not capable of doing the job once they are signed up for a long term contract. Short-term contracts however made it easier for employees to move on. The Department is focussed on retaining women and coloured people, who are under represented.
Mr Ainslie clarified that he had asked about fixed assets yet the explanation was about movable assets. He also asked if there had been a backup system and if so, why it had failed.
Mr J Blanche (DA) gave examples of technology boosting economies in other countries, including outsourcing tax returns to people in other countries and medical diagnoses being performed across countries. He said that if such interventions could not be afforded by individuals then the Government should step in. He also wanted to know if the Department was going to assist with building a new nuclear power plant.
Mr Van der Walt explained that the Department does not have any fixed assets, only equipment and furniture. Their building belongs to the Department of Public Works. There was no backup system because the system stood alone, but there was no really good reason for this. In future, because the system will be on the network, it will be backed up daily.
Mr Mjwara added that service delivery through technology depended on the availability of broadband technologies that was currently on the table at the Department of Public Enterprises and the Department of Communication. Such infrastructure would be needed to support the Square Kilometre Telescope. He was not familiar with a new nuclear power plant and suggested that the Departments of Trade and Industry or Minerals and Energy would have more information.
Mr B Mnyandu (ANC) asked whether the African Institute of South Africa (AISA) will move to the Department of Foreign Affairs and if so what impact this will have. He also wanted to know if there is any collaboration between the Departments of Education and Science and Technology to capacitate research and if so, how this has progressed. Lastly, who assesses the performance of the Research Chairs?
Mr S L Ditebe (ANC) also asked about the position of AISA. With regards to the Minister’s 2008 goals for Research and Development, how will the Department ensure that they see the end product and not just the spending on Research and Development?
The Chairperson asked where the nanotech centres were and why, according to the Annual Report, the audit committee met six times instead of the usual twice per annum. In addition, what progress has been made on the Indigenous Knowledge Systems?
Mr S N Nxumalo (ANC) asked in which rural areas the digital doorways were.
Mr Mjwara replied that AISA’s work has mainly been received by the Department of Foreign Affairs but is probably more aligned with the DST because of its research component. Discussions around the move to Foreign Affairs have been suspended until the challenges at AISA have been resolved. An oversight mechanism has been finalised with the Department of Education and challenges will be resolved as the relationship develops. There are clear agreements with the Research Chairs about their outputs. They are essentially taken away from teaching in order to focus on research and student supervision. A monitoring unit has been created. There are Characterisation Centres at CSIR and Mintek, amongst others, but he thought that the funding was spread too thinly over a number of centres. It would be better to have two: one for engineering nanotechnology and one for biological nanotechnology, but the location is not yet known. He was not sure of the locations of the Digital Doorways: one is in Mamelodi, but the details are available and the programme should be rolled out more broadly in the future.
Mr Moagi said that with regards to the Indigenous Knowledge Systems, an advisor group had been created and phase one is currently being implemented. He has requested more money from the Treasury to develop it and the programme is gaining momentum.
Mr Van der Walt clarified that there must be detailed policies for internal control and that the six meetings were the result of risks being taken seriously but that it does not indicate a problem.
Mr Ditebe requested more information on the tax incentives for Research and Development. This question was not answered.
The Committee adopted the minutes of its meeting of 29 August, after effecting technical amendments.
The meeting was adjourned.
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