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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
13 March 2007
COUNCIL FOR SCIENTIFIC AND INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH 2007/08 BUDGET AND STRATEGIC PLAN: BRIEFING
Chairperson: Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)
Documents handed out:
CSIR Corporate Plan Financial years 2007/8 to 2009/10: Executive Summary
CSIR Planning 2007/8 to 2009/10 presentation
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research presented their strategic plan and budget for the 2007/08 financial year as well as a longer term strategy over the next 3-20 years. The Council has entered a growth phase and aim to strengthen their human capital, shift the research agenda and be financially sustainable by growing public sector, private sector and other funding. The Committee asked questions about the application of the Council’s innovations and discoveries especially with regard to its benefit to the public. They also asked questions about their intentions for the 2010 World Cup and how they could be a part of solving problems in South Africa.
The Chairperson welcomed the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom.
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Presentation
Dr Sibusiso Sibisi (President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO)) presented the intentions and plans of the CSIR for the next year, and where applicable, the next 3 years. He explained their mandate and gave examples of projects from their transformation process named ‘CSIR: Beyond 60’. The major strategic objectives comprised: strengthening human capital, shifting the research agenda and being financially sustainable. The mandate of the CSIR has remained the same. A new area of activity is in nanotechnology. There are also technological innovations like rapid response to fires using satellite images, which is especially important for Eskom to identify threats to power lines. This project also uses sms technology. Light and advanced metals are a major project for aerospace and automotive research. They currently collaborate with Boeing on light metals. There are other innovations like the mesh network to provide affordable and wireless communication in diverse areas. This is in association with the Meraka Institute. Awarenet is another project for the surveillance of the country’s territorial waters. They are working on special vehicles for risk reduction in cash in transit heists.
The CSIR wanted to make sure that South Africa becomes an international player. Its projects were not only about indulging in curiosity. They have a three-phase long-term plan. The first, which is complete, is the Transformation phase, and took 18-36 months. The second is the Growth phase which could take from 5 to 15 years. They are at the start of this phase. The third is the Maturing phase which will last about 3 years. Their priority is to contribute to the national goal of fulfilling their mandate with financial sustainability and good governance. The three-year strategic intent is to strengthen human capital, especially with a strong SET base. He gave examples of projects that illustrate their progress. The total investment for 2007/08 is R149 million. This is to recapitalise scientific infrastructure. The national strategies and research agenda cover a variety of areas. He presented the intellectual property portfolio over previous years and the targets for 2007/08. The income sources have grown in the last 10 years, especially in the public sector. The private sector funding has decreased, and they planned to increase income from all sectors.
Mr I Blanche (DA) said that global warming was a “hot” debate. What role will the CSIR play in this, are they active in it?
Mr P J Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) asked what the reasons for private sector funding decline were. With regards to the application of their research results, where is it applied most in our society? Are there gaps in the application? He had personally used the mosquito candle mentioned in the presentation and was satisfied with its efficacy.
Mr S N Nxumalo (ANC) asked about the mesh network and for an elaboration on the improvement it could make to the quality of life and where it had been roll out. He also asked where the ‘Amadrum’ had been rolled out as this would be a good solution in the fight against cholera. He also asked if the CSIR was 2010 ready, asking what their role would be.
Prof I J Mohamed (ANC) said that previously there had been a problem with fires in grain silos where heat would build up and the contents spontaneously combusted. He had heard that there was nothing that could be done about the problem but he presumed that the problem had been resolved since. With regard to cash-in-transit heists, media reports gave the impression that the vehicles were not successful in protecting the contents. Were the new versions better? In the past, the CSIR had one building at Wits University and they now have practically the whole of Pretoria. They have certainly grown; can they manage all of it? In India there is also a CSIR. He was not sure if the two are related. The Indian CSIR was involved in a controversial programme to reproduced vehicles and structures for different uses. Are they not concerned with the link in name? When Dr Sibisi referred to ‘black staff’ it lumps all ethnic groups together and can cause unhappiness in certain groups especially with coloured people who feel continually sidelined. He related a story of a relative seeking employment in Soweto who was given a barrage of excuses before being told that they wanted a black person. He has noted that the railway is used far less than road in current years. Why have they been sidelined? He was also concerned with mining and has been underground and seen a problem with crumbling pillars. Has this problem been solved? The parliamentary grant had also been increased in the 20006/07 financial year; he was happy about this and suggested that this should be kept up.
Mr M P Bhengu (IFP) thanked the CSIR for its presentation. As the Committee has the function of oversight, it must have more details of the budget. Did they have a surplus for the last year? They did not say much about the nature of their Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiative except that level 4 had been reached. Could they expand on this?
Mr S L Dithebe (ANC) referred to the ICT mapping which showed that only 12% of households in South Africa have a PC. Furthermore, in areas like Makado in the Limpopo province, only 2% of households have a PC. In light of the digital doorway initiative they had to do something and he was not sure the CSIR is the right vehicle. Are they satisfied that they are the right vehicle for this?
Dr Sibisi said with to regard global warming they are very active and have been for a while. They recently got a researcher from Princeton to do research in this area. He is especially looking at paleo-data over a long time period especially at ocean currents. He was sure that the recent tax incentives will increase investment from the private sector but it will take time. The application of the results is difficult as they do not have the capacity to cover everywhere. They apply the results to areas they think are important. For example, energy research is important but they have no capacity to do it. They do not want to be spread too thinly. They want people to have access to innovations even if they cannot pay for them directly. For instance, clean water has benefits other than direct financial gain. Most funding is from the public sector and as such, this should benefit the public the most. The roll out of innovations is only on a small scale to demonstrate the principle. They have to partner with implementation experts like MTN and meshnet if they want to do a full roll out. They would be spread too thinly if they did roll out as well as finding solutions. Amadrum is also partnered with TWIB (Technology for Women In Business). He thought that the fire in silos problem had been solved but commented that had the question been: ‘is your technology adequate to deal with such a problem, the answer would be positive. There just needs to be a heat gradient for the satellite to pick it up. The cash in transit vehicles cannot just be rolled out. It is a challenge. The industry tries to minimise the costs and so they have not got as much interest as they would like.
The CSIR has been bigger at other times over the last 60 years. They spawned the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) and have other areas of activity, e.g. MWEB started at the CSIR. It is healthiest to have targets, grow, mature and then start again. There will always be an ebb and flow. There may be the addition of defence force research. The CSIR organisations all used to be in Commonwealth countries. Having helped to set up the CSIR in India and Australia, the central model is then abandoned. It is not important in developed countries. In the UK, the Minister said they keep a close watch on the 99% of things they do not work on so that they are strategically aligned to act when they need to.
The use of the term ‘black scientists’ refers to all non-whites and there was no intention to draw a line between ethnic groups. Mine safety is a project at the CSIR though they have not dealt with crumbling pillars specifically. They are working on seismic activity sensors. The logistics survey describes the nature of the problem, not how to overcome it. Transnet uses this and international data in their plans. They are happy that the Parliamentary grant has been increased and with the rate at which the grant has been increased so that the organisation can absorb and use it.
Surplus money and financial management will be dealt with at the end of the financial year where they detail the numbers. They are able to retain the surplus. The question of BEE is a good one and it is comprised of three things: the core of science and the demographic profile, the output of work and the people it affects. He wanted the CSIR people to cohort in commercial projects, and the procurement processes. They do not deal with large tenders as equipment usually has to be imported but they are active on a small scale where they can. The proportion of royalties that go to scientists cannot be controlled by BEE guidelines, but people can be given the opportunity. The Mesh network still needs further work. Even technology that seems like a problem, like MXit, can be used positively.
Mr Hoffman Maree (Group Executive: Operations, CSIR) added that the private sector income decline had manifold reasons like the cost of the research and outdated equipment forcing the private sector to turn international. The Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP) programme encourages companies to use students who are cheaper. Some international companies took over local companies. They can change it and have projected a modest increase. They are looking to more collaboration and focus on a few areas. There have been lots of visits from local and international companies to the CSIR especially in the field of light metals and biosciences. They want to see a more collective approach for South Africa to work with the international sector. An example is the titanium industry in South Africa with the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME), Department of Science and Technology (DST) and others. They want to arrest the decline in funding and grow. The distinction between local and international is becoming blurred. They do not only want to provide services. With regard to being 2010 ready, they have looked at what is needed and have been a little involved especially in specialised services but not really in new research. There is a large number of demonstration projects like hydrogen buses that will run during 2010 to practice and showcase such innovations. There will also be studies to measure people and logistics. The World Cup provides a real life large laboratory.
Dr Dave Walwyn (Group Manager: Research and Development) added that they are busy discussing projects with the DST, especially demonstrations. It would be a good question to ask in a few years time. This is in addition to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and other things the country is doing.
The Chairperson said that the DST recently presented their strategic plan and it would be good to align it with CSIR. They heard no follow up on the age of innovation plan that was previously presented. They were excited about it but now hear nothing. The mission statement should fit with the DST. Does the number of degrees in the Nanotechnology department represent employees or bursaries? The annual logistics survey is important: does it deal with asset management as there is a gap in Science and Technology? The Committee has always been outspoken about social impact interventions. The CSIR does more research but there can be a big impact, for example with the digital doorway. How far are they with the mobile autonomous intelligence systems and with cancer research? He saw a presentation from a Prof de Jager about a discovery in the Milky Way which will improve fridges. It is big science impacting everyday life. How far are they on the Intellectual Property issue? The Japanese wanted to open a centre for IP systems, have they followed up on this? Can they get an update on aerospace engineering and Israeli air cars?
Mr P D N Maloyi (ANC) said that he saw a sign at the CSIR last year that said ‘Innovation hub’, how does this differ from the Knowledge Commons? They had a presentation about skills shortages and it was very concerning. Some projects in the future will have to be delayed or cancelled. What strategy does the CSIR have to deal with this? Will they ever have a ‘Nelson Mandela Car’ that is made completely in South Africa or will they always have to rely on international input?
Dr Sibisi said that their collaboration with the DST is so tight that they did not feel that they needed to outline the relationship each time. Two years ago they presented aspects that needed to be changed or implemented. The turn over of people can be good. People must have a finite contract and these were the principles they discussed, especially with agility and critical thinking.
The Chairperson interjected that it was important to remind the Committee of the relationship since the Committee membership keeps changing.
Dr Sibisi said that he was happy to conduct a separate briefing on the history of the CSIR. The Nanogroup degrees are studentships but not necessarily permanent positions. The logistics survey does not intend to be an asset management tool.
The Chairperson said that the University of Pretoria identified it as one of the big problems and as such the CSIR should think about it.
Mr Maree said that the CSIR did design much of the methodology for asset management but then stepped away from it.
The Chairperson suggested they should return to it.
Dr Sibisi said that they should discuss what their role should be. They did not do much cancer research per se, rather the mechanisms for killing cells.
Dr Walwyn clarified that they are in initial preclinical studies. The efficacy had been shown in vivo in animals but it is still very early days. The Monitoring and Information System (MAIS) is still new and the project only starts on 1 April. They are doing some robotics, it is a big field internationally and they are coming in on a low level. They want to look at how to use open source technology.
Dr Sibisi explained that it is a departure from classic robotics to include artificial vision. It is a big challenge. He thought that Japan had been violating the lithium battery patent which may be a source of big income in the future. The intellectual property is another discussion altogether. The focus on aerospace is on air vehicles and is not very cutting edge generally. The light materials are more important. The air car could be important for surveillance for 2010 and similar events. The Innovation hub is a science park for start up enterprises and is primarily to support companies. Knowledge commons are fragmented areas for social and intellectual interaction. With regards to the skills shortage, the pass rate in the previous year for higher grade maths was only 5%. He was not sure the CSIR should put their money into solving this; they are more about providing a space for scientists and encouraging young people to enter science. A South African car would be good but it would also be good to have a nutrient rich sorghum. The problem is making a specific product vs. a general application. There must be some distinction and some things must be left in the industrial domain. For example, the car companies would be the best ones to make a car.
The meeting was adjourned.
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