Astronomy Geographic Advantage Bill: Department briefing

Science and Technology

05 June 2007
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Meeting report

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
5 June 2007
ASTRONOMY GEOGRAPHIC ADVANTAGE BILL: DEPARTMENT BRIEFING

Chairperson:
Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out:
PowerPoint Presentation: Astronomy Geographic Advantage (AGA) Bill
Astronomy Geographic Advantage (AGA)  Bill [B17-2007]

Audio Recording of the Meeting

SUMMARY
The Committee was briefed by the Department of Science and Technology on the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Bill. The main purpose of the Bill was to authorise the Minister of Science and Technology to declare astronomy advantage areas within the Republic. This would ensure that large-scale globally important astronomy facilities were protected from uncontrolled development and potential interferences. The Committee was given a breakdown of the contents of each chapter of the Bill along with a brief explanation of what the meaning and intent of the chapters were. The presentation also covered the process and consultations that the Bill had undertaken.

Members asked questions about controversial aspects of the Bill, whether communities participated in the consultation process, what interaction there had been with municipalities, the beneficiation aspect of the Square Kilometre Array project, the training of students, the skills that would be used and whether these would be imported, and the option to lease the land. .

MINUTES
Astronomy Geographic Advantage Bill (the Bill): Briefing by Department of Science and Technology (DST)
Dr Tshepo Seekoe, Director: Science Platforms, DST, articulated that the Bill would facilitate and drive the Department’s Astronomy Geographic Advantage Programme (AGAP). This 10-year strategy incorporated the steering of knowledge production, publication, transmission and preservation. The other salient features of this programme included advancing research, providing a framework for critical mass development and increasing visibility of scientific research.

The speaker commented that AGAP Multi-Wavelength Research comprised of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the High Energy Stereoscopic System, and Karoo Array Telescope / Square Kilometre Array Telescope (SKA).

The Bill’s purpose was three-fold. It aimed to protect astronomy investments already made in South Africa, to maintain an environment for a global hub that would attract international investments and to create a competitive edge for South Africa to win the bid to host the SKA and other astronomy investments.

Dr Seekoe outlined the progression of the Bill. It was first presented to Cabinet in November 2005 and approved for a public consultation process. Many key stakeholders, such as government departments and public entities, responded to the invitation. The contributions received resulted in the amendment of the Bill and these amendments were presented to the Cabinet in November 2006 and subsequently approved for tabling to parliament.

A brief synopsis was provided on each chapter of the Bill:
Chapter 1 covered the interpretation, objects and application of the Bill.
Chapter 2 made provision for the declaration of astronomy advantage areas by the Minister of Science and Technology. The Minister also had the authority to exclude or withdraw an astronomy advantage area. The Department defined the three different categories of advantage areas and utilised a map to illustrate this point.
Chapter 3 covered the management and control of central and core astronomy advantage areas. The Minister must declare the assignment of a management of core astronomy advantage area to a public entity or organ of state.
Chapter 4 dealt with the general measures to promote astronomy.
Chapter 5 covered the acquisition of rights in or to land.
Chapter 6 dealt with consultation and public participation process.
Chapter 7 provided for the powers and functions of the National Research Foundation.
Chapter 8 listed the offences and penalties.

Discussion
The Chairperson asked whether the Bill contained any controversial aspects.

Mr Puseletso Loselo, Manager: Legal Services, DST, answered that Telkom believed that some of the powers entrusted to the Minister should be regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. The Civil Aviation Authority also expressed concern about the Minister’s powers regarding the prohibition of over-flight of aircrafts in declared areas.

Ms F Mahomed (ANC) queried whether communities participated in the consultation process.

Ms Ferrial Adam, Adviser and Astronomer, South African Square Kilometre Array Telescope (SASKA) confirmed that the Department consulted with people living in the designated area.

Ms Mahomed raised concern about the safety aspect of the Department’s SKA project.

Dr Seekoe assured the Committee that there were no health risks associated with the radio astronomy programme.

Mr P Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) sought clarity regarding the Department’s acquisition of land for its SKA project.

Ms Adam replied that the Department had identified land that was privately owned. Negotiations were on going to purchase this land and there was no question of expropriation at this stage. The Department would look into leasing if it needed to acquire further land.

Mr Nefolovhodwe asked the Department to explain the concept of transmission interference.

Dr Seekoe explained that transmission interference occurred when there were competing signals at a reception point.

Mr Nefolovhodwe lamented that there was usually a delay in the process when more than one government department was involved. He wondered whether this Bill would be in conflict with other legislation.

Dr Seekoe responded that working groups and steering committees were established with government departments in the Northern Cape from the outset to eschew delay and confusion.

Mr Loselo added that Clause 4 of the Bill would be effected if conflict arose with other legislation. Furthermore, a technical committee had been established with all relevant stakeholders to discuss and deliberate on areas of contestation.

Mr J Blanche (DA) voiced concern that the Department of Transport did not give a written response in the consultation process. He also believed that the Department of Agriculture should be consulted.

The Chairperson queried the beneficiation status of the SKA project.

Dr Bethuel Sehlapelo, Deputy Director General, DST, acknowledged that this was an important question. He cited that the local community and the country at large would benefit from foreign direct investment and job creation. A project of this scale and prestige would ensure transferability of knowledge to South Africans and also attract more youth to the scientific profession.

Mr S Dithebe (ANC) asked whether the Department supported the municipalities that would be affected by the project with their integrated development programmes.

Ms Adam replied in the affirmative. Municipalities were involved in working committees that handled these matters.

The Chairperson queried why the Northern Cape Province was selected to host the SKA project.

Mr Neil Smuts, Radio Frequency Interference Consultant for the SASKA,  responded that the Northern Cape was selected because of its sparse population and the minimal interference in that area that would impact the SKA.

Mr Nefolovhodwe asked the Department to provide examples of other countries that had established similar projects.

Mr Smuts confirmed that the USA and Australia had advantage areas or radio reserves.

The Chairperson enquired whether the Department would import skills from overseas to work on and manage the SKA project.

Dr Seekoe answered that while South Africa would host the SKA Telescope, the facilities and resources would be available to scientists from all over the world. The Department recognised that there was a shortage of skills and had initiated a human capital development plan to address this matter.

The Chairperson wondered whether the Department was training any students.

Dr Seekoe replied that the Department awarded bursaries to post-graduate students at UCT and North West University.

Mr B Mnyandu (ANC) wanted the Department to elaborate on its plans to acquire  land through leasing.

Mr Loselo clarified that the Bill referred to buying, expropriating and exchanging of land. While it did not refer to leasing, the Bill did not expressly prohibit this. The Department would exercise this option if it was the most desirable.

The meeting was adjourned.

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