A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.
AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
11 October 2006
NATIONAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION 2005/2006 ANNUAL REPORT: BRIEFING
Chairperson: Mr E N N Ngcobo (ANC)
Documents handed out:
PowerPoint Presentation by National Research Foundation: Part1, Part2, Part3 & Part4
National Research Foundation Annual Report 2005/2006 (available at www.nrf.co.za)
The National Research Foundation (NRF) presented its annual report to the Committee. NRFoffered facilities for researchers to conduct research, and was responsible for the granting of funds and for creating awareness of research relating to science and technology. Its four core missions were human resource development, the generation of research and knowledge, the advancement of technological innovation and the development of research infrastructure. Strategic priorities included equity and redress, adherence to quality, internationalisation of research, a refocus on Africa and an organizational transformation of the NRF in the National System of Innovation (NSI). A number of important projects were highlighted. It was noted that although there had been no rise in grant applications, the size of grants had been increased. 1179 doctoral students were supported. The financial report indicated that NRF had experienced a deficit due to the accounting methods used to account for the post-retirement fund. R650 million of the R900 million had been spent on grants, representing a 33% increase in grants funding. The NRF complied fully with the requirements of the Public Finance Management Act and had also received an unqualified audit report from the Auditor–General.
Questions by members included the criteria for grants and funding approval processes, the involvement in indigenous knowledge systems and maths enrichment programmes at Dinaledi schools. Clarity was sought on transformation and empowerment of women and disadvantaged people in both the research process and in the structures of the NRF. The registration of patents, the social impact of research outputs, and the funding of specific projects, as well as funding from National Lotteries, were raised. Further explanations were given on the post-retirement funding obligations. It was noted that a holistic approach was needed to developing human resource capabilities and skills, and better communication of the work and availability of the NRF resources.
Opening Remarks by the Chairperson and introduction of new CEO
The Chairperson stated that owing to the demanding parliamentary and committee schedule, the Committee had not yet had the opportunity to be formally introduced to the new Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation (NRF), Prof Mazamo Mangaliso. A formal introduction was necessary as a basis for further interaction with the Foundation and its executive members. Members had to be familiarized with the new incumbent’s vision for the institution. The current meeting would not be considered a formal introduction of the CEO to the Committee but his presence would be considered as a means to facilitate the business of the day.
Ms A Canca, General Manager (Chief Director), Department of Science and Technology, expressed her pleasure at the opportunity to again interact with the Committee. The current meeting marked the first appearance of the new CEO and President of the NRF to the Committee. The Minister of Science and Technology, the Hon. Minister Mosibudi Mangena, was unable to personally introduce the new incumbent to Members, owing to a Cabinet meeting, but would undertake a formal introduction as soon as his schedule allowed.
She explained that Prof Mangaliso had joined the NRF on 1 September 2006 and the Department was looking forward to a good working relationship with him. The National System of Innovation had enjoyed a period of success through the efforts of the NRF. The Department was confident that such successes would continue under the leadership of Prof Mangaliso.
The Chairperson welcomed Prof Mangaliso. He expressed his hopes that the Committee would be able to meet with him after his formal introduction by Minister Mangena, and requested members to introduce themselves to Prof Mangaliso.
The Chairperson noted that some members had apologized for their absence and explained to Prof Managaliso that these members had priority engagements with other committees.
National Research Foundation Briefing
Prof Mazamo Mangaliso, CEO of National Research Foundation, expressed his pleasure at the warm welcome the Committee extended to him. He said that the work of the previous financial year had been completed under the capable leadership of his predecessor, Dr K Mokhele. He extended his apologies for the absence of the Chairperson Prof B Reddy, who had been unable to postpone his commitments in USA to attend this meeting, and Dr Mokhele, who was unable to attend due to expiry of his contract.
The Chairperson noted that the Corporate Strategies and Annual Reports were important documents and the Chairperson was supposed to introduce these documents to parliament, as well as to account for both the successes and failures of the organization. The absence of the Chairperson was a breach of procedure, and another senior member familiar with issues within the organization should have been present. He said that the new CEO could not take responsibility for introducing such an important document and could not be expected to answer questions Members may have. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) was to accept responsibility for this oversight as it was responsible for making the necessary arrangements. Such oversights created problems in terms of the mechanisms employed by parliament and stipulated by the Public Finance Management Act for interrogation of reports
Prof Mangaliso noted that the document circulated to members differed from the one to be presented, but stated that the numerical information would remain exactly the same, and the presentation today would include additional clarification around the conceptual thinking and the context.
Prof Mangaliso thanked the Committee for its acceptance of his nomination, and pledged that all efforts would be made to strengthen the collective work of the Committee and NRF in order to advance the cause of science and technology in South Africa.
Prof Mangaliso announced that the NRF had a responsibility to contribute to the further development of South Africa’s technological and innovation status globally and to ensure that obstacles to technological advancement were removed. He expressed his confidence that the NRF team had the ability, as well as the willingness, to invest effort in the exercise of their duties and appreciated the support received from the Committee. The NRF was unique as it encompassed and crosscut across all disciplines, and was a catalyst for the transformation process across institutions of higher education. A synergy between the work of the Committee and the Foundation should be created in order to propel the country to higher levels of excellence.
As a new member of the NRF team, he was impressed by the amount of work that had been done with the limited resources at its disposals. The foundation would want to see a growth in its resources to accelerate the success of its existing programmes and work. An increase in the output of PhD degrees in all disciplines had been identified as a driver of the development of research. The current output of PhDs lagged behind international trends. Ambitious targets had to be set encompassing a 15 year period, and adequate resources had to be committed to nurturing more PhD candidates from undergraduate level and retaining them in the higher education system.
The Chairperson commended the presenter for highlighting the extent to which the work of the previous year adhered to the stated objectives of the Strategic Plan.
Ms Magdal Pienaar (Manager: Corporate Governance Unit) outlined the NRF’s 2005/2006 annual report to the Committee. She explained that the NRF had a facilitative role, providing facilities for researchers to conduct research. The foundation was also responsible for the granting of funds and for creating awareness of research relating to science and technology. South Africa had to increase its international competitiveness regarding the production of PhDs as well as the number of researchers produced. A knowledge economy was dependent on people who not only were armed with technical skills but also had high intellectual abilities. The production of high levels of PhD’s served as a platform for the transformation of the economy.
The four core missions of the NRF were human resource development, the generation of research and knowledge, the advancement of technological innovation and the development of research infrastructure. These were complemented by the strategic priorities, which included equity and redress, adherence to quality, internationalisation of research, a refocus on Africa and an organizational transformation of the NRF in the National System of Innovation (NSI).
A number of important projects were highlighted. “Big Science” initiatives such as the South African Large Telescope (SALT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) would further promote astronomy research internationally as well as demonstrate South Africa’s technological competencies.
Statistics revealed that the number of grants taken up by black students had remained stagnant. This meant that although the number of applicants did not rise, the size of grants awarded increased, to ensure that the number of people already in the system, was retained. 1179 doctoral students had been supported, but the current level of undergraduate and postgraduate studies would not produce increased levels of doctoral candidates.
Mr Bischen Singh, Executive Director:Finance, NRF, presented a brief financial report to the Committee. The NRF had experienced a deficit due to the accounting methods used to account for the post-retirement fund. The foundation had spent R650 million of its R900 million on grants. This amounted to a 33% increase in grants funding. The NRF complied fully with the requirements of the Public Finance Management Act. The audit committee reviewed the Treasury’s checklist on the PFMA at regular intervals. It also complied with the Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP) and annual financial statements were based on these requirements. The NRF had also received an unqualified audit report from the Auditor–General.
Prof I Mohammed (ANC) commented that the NRF often granted funding to well known researchers regardless of the strength of proposals made, and that often the research interests of heads of departments (HODs) would take precedence over other research areas. He asked whether this problem was being addressed and noted that this question had arisen also in the past.
Dr Andrew Kaniki, Executive Director: Knowledge. Management and Strategy, NRF, responded that the grant process relied on the peer review mechanism, which included South African and international experts. The NRF was constantly analysing the grant process to ensure that funding was granted on the proposed research rather than the reputation of the researcher. Reports were also rated during the review process. Auditors paid particular attention to the review process arrived at its conclusions, to establish the fairness of the granting and review process.
The presentation had highlighted the NRF’s preoccupation with wise investments of the funds at its disposal. Funding decisions were guided by the extent to which grant applications corresponded with national goals and NRF’s research and development strategy. The Department of Science and Technology also offered guidance on which research areas were to be focused on.
He continued that HODs had to establish partnerships within their departments but that the approaches towards grants and research would vary greatly. In this context, the NRF had to ensure that it formed partnerships with institutions to ensure that higher education institutions were driven by national goals.
Dr Kaniki further explained that annual institutional reviews had highlighted challenges within the ratings process. The system continued to be improved annually. He emphasized that the ratings process had to be reviewed in a holistic and collaborative manner. Steering committees comprising key stakeholders of Higher Education South Africa (HESA) had been established to monitor and improve the efficacy of the review process. This committee would meet the following week to set up a country review, guided by the country’s higher education process.
The Chairperson stated that a recent lecture delivered by the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Judge Pius Langa, had demonstrated the need for various strategies of transformation. Transformation could not unfold in a vacuum and had to challenge the varied biases within society. Similarly, the processes used for ratings must be diverse.
Prof Mangaliso added that opportunities existed for a revision of existing processes. The questions that had been raised by the Committee were not a criticism of the work of the NRF, but were pointers to establish whether the work of the foundation was consistent with the broader vision for the South African society. Processes and outcomes should eventually be accountable to these broader goals. He assured the Committee that all issues raised would be critically examined.
The Chairperson commented that this meeting would familiarise the NRF with the thinking of public representatives, thus assisting the CEO to align NRF goals with the expectations of society. He emphasised that the issues around the grant of funding and consideration of applications were critical. He recalled the problems experienced in by the NRF in that its ratings of research had sometimes proved to be undemocratic. The restructuring of the NRF’s management structures may have impacted on efficacy of this process, and, if so, he urged that such problems be tackled immediately.
Mr B Mnyandu (ANC) commented that the presentation had not mentioned any activities around indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). He asked how much the NRF had contributed to research in this particular area, what its attitude was towards indigenous knowledge systems, and in what ways its work was truly African.
Dr Andrew Kaniki answered that a National Strategy on Traditional Knowledge Systems had been established in the Department of Science and Technology. DST had provided the NRF with R10 million over the past few years to explore indigenous knowledge research. Problems relating to the take up of such research had been experienced and it was discovered that a different process of rating had to be developed for research proposals in this particular field, which was then developed through interaction with the DST. At the same time, the DST had instituted a review of the IKS programmes as managed by the NRF and a national office for IKS would also be established. There had been an increase in the study of IKS. A database of completed and ongoing research had been created. The DST had access to this database. The NRF and DST were concerned with the actual use of the information resource in order to establish the social impact of such research. No specific estimates had been established yet but he could assure the Committee that important work had been done in this field. Funding processes in the field had been reviewed under the guidance of the National office of IKS.
Prof Mangaliso stressed the importance of the utilization of indigenous knowledge systems in the research process. Research methods had to reflect the particular culture of society. Existing accepted theories had to be challenged and the methods of research had to be reinvented in order to develop an “African way” of practising and studying science. African researchers had for many years applied Western theories and practices that were not suitable for the study of an African context.
He continued that the developmental role of language was central to IKS. He stressed the importance of mother tongue education and suggested that the debate on this issue should be continued. He noted that he had been schooled in Xhosa, Afrikaans and then English at three levels of education and explained that the use of different languages in each phase of educational development posed particular challenges for learning. He reiterated that mother tongue education had developmental advantages.
Mr Mnyandu requested clarification on what was meant by the “book entry” of NRF’s post-retirement funds. He asked if the R56 million reflected the total payments made to members and how the deficit was accounted for.
Mr Singh responded that the NRF had made a decision to not enrol new members in the retirement fund subsequent to 1995. In terms of the accounting rules, the NRF was still obliged to provide benefits to those members who had enlisted prior to 1995. Benefits included post retirement access to health care benefits and medical aid coverage. The NRF could have utilized certain accounting rules that allowed it to reserve an amount of money on the balance sheet, to then extract it, and finally retain the funds in the bank. This book entry had satisfied the Auditor General and reflected generally recognized accounting practices of accounting for contingent liabilities that could be incurred. The NRF did not have the money to place on reserve in the bank nor to make the level of payments, and therefore opted to curtail such expenditure by buying-out some members when funds were available to do so. No new benefits were available after 1995, as the NRF could not continue to fund post retirement medical aid. The Foundation was not willing to reserve the limited funds it received for grants for this purpose. NRF had approached the DST and was also still awaiting the final decision by the National Treasury on this issue. The Ministers of Science and Technology, and Finance had also had discussions around this issue.
Mr Mnyandu asked whether rural schools participated in the Maths Enrichment Programme, and how many of these schools benefited.
Dr Kaniki answered that the emphasis lay on the Dinaledi schools, which were mainly located in rural and underdeveloped areas. This project aimed at re-attracting young people to the learning of maths and encouraged interactions with particular institutions. It was essentially focused on disadvantaged schools than advantaged schools. He could not off hand recall the actual number of these schools.
The Chairperson suggested that the NRF interact with the Director-General of the Department of Education, who had raised significant challenges to the success of the Dinaledi project at a recent meeting with the Chairperson, and had requested the Committee’s assistance. The Chairperson suggested that a workshop cold be held to devise support strategies for these schools. He asked for a report back after the discussions.
Mr Mnyandu commented that it was striking that South Africa had the largest in situ-derived African wildlife cell culture collection in the world , and asked for further clarity, especially in light of the debate around genetic modification.
Professor Paul Skelton, Managing Director, African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, NRF, explained that the National Zoo, as a new national facility, was faced with the challenge of transforming itself into a research facility as opposed to its former role of a predominantly entertainment facility. This change in paradigm would be more focused on Africa and to the preservation of the continent’s heritage resources. The NRF would be directing the collection to ensure that it had an increasingly African focus. The in situ-derived wildlife cell culture referred to one of the fundamental strengths of the national facilities in the biodiversity sector. Continued research on genetics, in particular on molecular genetics, relied heavily on short-lived collections and were thus not geared towards handling long term issues. The national facilities provided a repository where long-term issues could be handled, and the zoo and the cell culture would fulfill this potential in terms of tissue banking. The collection had been developed in a genetic laboratory at UCT and NRF had not previously had the resources or the willpower to maintain this collection. The zoo, as a national facility, was now offering the nation an opportunity to preserve these collections for future research, thus promoting the NRF’s ability to service the needs of the country.
The Chairperson commented that knowledge would be of no use if it was isolated. Part of the problem of indigenous knowledge based systems was that those who had possessed such knowledge had died without passing the knowledge on. All knowledge should be viewed as outreach to the broader society. He suggested the NRF develop a communications strategy, endorsed by government and policy makers, around the transformation of these national facilities.
Professor Skelton responded that NRF remained conscious of the fact that public funds were utilised. This meant that the entire approach of the national facilities was to make such resources widely available to the research community for the benefit of all. DST was driven to communicate such issues and to make resources known and available.
Mr Mnyandu noted the increase in the funding, and requested clarity on patent outcomes.
Mr Singh responded that patents were tangible outcomes that could be registered. Programmes funded for industrial development had produced more patents than the research at national facilities. A clear distinction had to be drawn between the different types of patents.
Professor Skelton added that the number of patents was not alarming. The specific statistics referred to were patents produced at national facilities. He explained that the nature of research at national facilities was not at the industrial edge of research but more focused on the pure sciences. Patents were therefore not a major outcome of such research. Research funded outside of the national facilities, particularly in industrial processes, produced higher patents. He stressed that NRF funded research has led to a significant increase in patents produced.
Mr S Nxumalo (ANC) said that Parliamentarians must pay particular attention to how the marginalisation of the past was being redressed in the areas of research and development. The use of the term “black” often camouflaged the real progress and he requested clarity on the trends.
Ms Pienaar expressed her agreement that the existing aggregation may have limited use. However, the information required by the member was difficult to obtain as many were not willing to talk about specific race issues. She added that last year, a member of the Committee had already raised questions about the use of the terms “black” and “white” in a post apartheid South Africa. She stressed that such aggregations were necessary to assess the extent of the transformation process. The NRF would try to refine its systems of measurement.
The Chairperson noted that the particular Committee member referred to was a member of a party that was opposed to transformation. He continued that focus should be placed rather on the processes of the institution rather than personalities. Important challenges faced South African society that could not be brushed aside.
Mr Nxumalo commented that that the figures in the report did not reflect the research outputs of previously disadvantaged people. If this was not addressed, the seriousness of enhancing research and development could be questioned.
Dr Kaniki answered that the aggregation requested by the member was available. There had been a steady increase in the research undertaken by the various groups of people. In some institutions of higher learning there was increasing concern among academics, and NRF itself, that good African researchers were moved from pure research to managerial positions, in order to fulfill structural transformation requirements. The education systems were producing higher numbers of good academics, but they did not always remain as academics.
Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) asked to what extent had the NRF re engineered itself in order to start promoting the empowerment of women within the institution as well as research and development.
Prof Mangaliso answered that women were not represented enough in higher positions within the faculties of science and engineering at tertiary institutions. This was a significant challenge that needed to be addressed. Hard work needed to be done to produce female engineers. Outreach programmes encouraging women to study these subjects had to be developed.
Ms Ngcobo said that the NRF had expressed a desire see the lives of all South Africans improve, particularly in light of its activities around the promotion of scarce skills, and asked for some indication of work done in the areas of scarce skills development.
Dr Kaniki responded that that in terms of empowering women in research, various programmes had been instituted that were part of the granting system of the NRF. The Thuthuthuka programme had a specific programme of encouraging women to undertake research. The NRF also collaborated with higher institutions to encourage the enrolment of women at tertiary institutions.
In terms of
the granting process, women applicants with a good research proposal would be
granted extra points as an encouragement to access research funding. Additional
programmes emanating from the core initiatives of the foundation were
complimentary to those initiatives from higher education institutions.
Mr P Thompson, Executive Director: Human Resources, NRF, added that the NRF had made steady progress regarding the representatively of women in research and within the structures of the foundation. The representation of women had risen by 2% annually, but was still not sufficient. Women formed the majority of the population and therefore representivity within the organization as well as the field of research should reflect this. The NRF could not retain those individuals it had trained, and therefore a number of retention strategies had been developed. He stressed that the Committee should be convinced of the NRF’s commitment to further transform itself institutionally
Ms Ngcobo asked for an indication of the social impact of the research outputs, and also asked whether the output of high quality PhDs would be retained in the country, or whether an exodus of PhD graduates was likely.
Prof Mangaliso mentioned that the ability of the NRF to retain PhD graduates had assisted in reversing the “brain drain”. A continuing challenge was the high levels of black African academics in international universities. A strategy had to be developed to attract these intellectuals to South Africa where their skills could be utilized for the development of South Africa. These academics were also regarded as role models to younger generations.
At the top level of decision making, when a women left the organization, another woman tended to replace her, thus leading to female empowerment. There was a clear effort to maintain the status quo if not improve it. NRF currently had a vacancy at executive level, as well as a vacancy at the vice presidency. NRF would like women to apply and be appointed.
Ms Ngcobo noted the NRF’s cash flow problems to higher education institutions, who were responsible for the management of such funds. She asked if mechanisms were in place to ensure that funds, when granted, were used optimally. She also asked how frequently NRF’s audit committee convened.
Mr Singh replied that the number of audit committee meetings held was indicated in the report. This committee usually met four times each quarter, but had met six times, due to special meetings, in the last quarter.
The Chairperson commented that the Committee was continually concerned of the limited impact the restructuring process of the NRF had on the functioning of its systems. The efficiency of the organization had to be ensured. In this regard, the annual report was a core document to establish what had been achieved as well as to understand the challenges the organization faced. This would allow the development of strategies to tackle such issues. The proposal by the Chairpersons’ Forum that a minister be held responsible for the presentation of its annual report to Parliament would ensure that deficiencies were accounted for at executive level.
He added that although the report was very substantial and interesting, the Committee had insufficient time to analyse it thoroughly, having received it only three days before this meeting. Members could therefore not provide constructive ideas and suggestions for improvement on the NRF’s work. The Chairperson’s Forum wanted annual reports to be submitted to Parliament as early as August, which would allow Members to analyse reports prior to the presentations. This proposal would become operational within a two-year period.
Mr Singh responded that the NRF had complied with the requirements of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). The Act stipulated that a report had to be produced within the first five months of the end of the financial year. The NRF had complied with this rule and was ready for the presentation on the original date of 12 September. He was not sure where the confusion originated and why the report had not been distributed to Members beforehand.
The Chairperson raised questions regarding the funding of SKA and SALT for the completion of the baseline work necessary for the functioning of these programmes. The international status of such projects enabled funds to be generated from various donors, and he asked why these projects needed so much funding from the state.
Mr Singh answered that the NRF was not limited to government funding. The NRF Act allowed for the lobbying of additional funders. The SKA project was an international project and was worth one billion euros. This large amount of money posed a capacity challenge to the NRF as its internal structures had to be strengthened to manage such funds. Equipment within national facilities had to be maintained and upgraded and thus the rise in the annual expenditure and funds needed. For example a CT scanner used at iThemba LABS recently needed to be replaced at the amount of R6 million.
The Chairperson expressed his surprise that the NRF partially depended on funds from the National Lotteries, as he believed that it was inappropriate to rely on such funding. He asked for an indication of the nature of this assistance.
Mr Singh replied that the NRF had discussions with a range of potential funders. The R30 million donated by the National Lotteries Fund was a once-off payment, for the funding of the SKA and KAT projects.
The Chairperson commented that the innovation process had to be adequately managed and the importance of strong management had been highlighted during a recent visit to Japan. He felt that an innovation workshop should be arranged for all stakeholders in the innovation process to create a better understanding of the term itself. Many regarded innovation as merely technological in character, rather than simply a creative destruction of an old order. He stressed that DST and the Innovation Fund had to take leadership in this regard. The Committee also had a significant role to play in leading innovation.
The Chairperson requested clarification between the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the NRF.
Ms Pienaar answered that particular science councils were focused on performing research. Unlike these, the NRF mainly focused on funding research as well as conducting research in national facilities collaboratively. HSRC, the Centre for Scientific Research (CSIR) and the NRF reported directly to the DST while the rest of the science councils were accountable to their line departments.
The Chairperson said that research regarding human capital development was mostly the focus of organizations such as the CSIR. An institution like the NRF was well positioned for practical development of human capabilities and skills. A more holistic approach needed to be developed in order to produce higher levels of skilled people, rather than a mere rise in PhD graduates. South Africa could learn from the programmes adopted by technologically advanced countries such as South Korea and the added investment in the skills development of their population. Such investments ranged from pension schemes designed to secure family security, as well as important investments in the education system.
Dr Kaniki responded that the NRF aimed to leverage the research training capacity of science councils, government and industry. The CSIR had refocused itself to performing research and therefore it was critical to develop the institutional capacity of such research institutions in order to develop the research skills of students at both graduate and undergraduate levels.
Prof Mangaliso expressed his commitment to cooperate with the Committee to further strengthen the capacity of the NRF. NRF and DST would jointly develop a holistic strategy for the advancement of science and technology, which would in turn ensure that the rise in the number of PhDs was embedded in the whole of society.
Prof Skelten added that science platforms such as SKA and KAT symbolized the ability and commitment of South Africa to the advancement of science at an international level. This would attract international funding and cooperation.
Prof Mangaliso commented that the Chairperson had raised important points of discussion regarding the national innovation process. He pledged to familiarize himself with the work of the innovation funds of the NRF. He committed the NRF to ensure that the issues raised by Members would be acted upon and reported back in the tabling of the next Annual Report.
Ms Canca commented that the DST had established a Science and Youth Directorate. A Youth into Science strategy had also been finalised and work had begun in the development of a human capital development strategy. The public participation process would commence in due course.
The Chairperson noticed the need for an effective communication system to raise awareness of and spread information about the processes and projects of both the DST and the NRF. During the Committee’s recent trip to Japan, a Japanese scientist had stressed that such a mechanism would simultaneously coordinate the processes of the national innovation system, and DST should take responsibility for the development of such a mechanism, and should create better communications mechanisms between itself and the Committee.
The meeting was adjourned.
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