The National Research Foundation briefed the committee on the Business Plan for the period 2008/9 – 2010/11. The focus on PhD qualifications was highlighted and this focus was a common thread throughout the presentation. The NRF Vision 2015 was introduced and it was defined, referring to a push toward world-class research and the practical, market-oriented outcomes.
During the discussion several topics enjoyed attention, most notably the retention of PhDs, community engagement, the NRF’s contribution to solving the energy crisis and the general theme of the NRF’s interaction and contribution to schools and the economy at large.
The outcomes of the meeting largely encompassed the strides being made by the NRF.
In the area of contributing to energy generation in South Africa, the following were highlighted: the beneficiation of silicon for the increased provision of photovoltaic cells to generate solar power, the development of solid polymer electrolysers and the progress in the South African electric vehicle initiative.
On the issue of a focus on PhDs gains have been made here too in the form of attracting more graduate talent at the PhD fairs. On retention and support, assisted scholarships of PhDs abroad were highlighted for their long-term benefits. A move toward making more funding available to students that would be commensurate with expected earnings was also discussed.
The Innovation Fund and long-term investments in the NRF’s many facilities were raised as well as the numerous successes, the particle therapy centre at iThemba Labs was mentioned as an example. Biotechnology investments were having the longest term to return of all the investment initiatives. Finally the budget constraints were discussed and in view of available funds the NRF had no choice but to institute phased implementation of all future plans and projects.
The Committee discussed the need to encourage students to continue their studies at the higher tertiary level, the migration of knowledge out of the country, conditions attached to student grants, fostering of scientific proficiency at school level, promoting engineering studies and alternative energy research.
Prof Mzamo Mangaliso, President and CEO: NRF outlined the NRF Business Plan for the 2008/9-2010/11 period. He opened by broadly discussing the NRF mandate which includes funding, human resource development and the provision of the necessary research facilities to foster the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology, thereby contributing to the improvement of the quality of life of all the people of the Republic.
After unpacking their process of consultation to arrive at this strategic plan, he proceeded to discuss NRF Vision 2015. This initiative had as outcomes world-class research, a transformed society and a sustainable environment for the benefit of present and future generations. He said that there would be more focus on issues of equity and redress for those who should inherit a liveable planet. The goal of contributing to the knowledge economy by attaining at least 1% of global R&D output by 2015 was noted for its challenging task of trying to increase our slice of a finite pie in a global knowledge economy that was very competitive.
The DST 10 year Innovation Plan was discussed next, concentrating on the four pillars: Economic and Institutional Regime, Education, Information Infrastructure and Innovation. He elaborated further on the pillar of innovation, highlighting knowledge capital, human capital and research infrastructure as key to innovation. NRF’s strategic goals as well as their core competencies were presented next and it was noted that these were particularly well encompassed by the Research and Innovation Support and Advancement (RISA) project.
Next he reviewed RISA’s value addition and made a note of the national research facilities, including iThemba Labs and the South African Astronomical Observatory among others.
The flagship of the PhD project, the PhD fair day was discussed as a very effective tool in attracting graduate talent for PhD programmes here and abroad. The PhD production rates for South Africa were analysed and it was shown that South Africa ranks as a C-League country, meaning it produces fewer than 50 PhDs per million of population per year. Coupled with the statistics that show that losses per level of study ending with the PhD qualification are significant and worrying. This convergence of information is the primary reason for the NRF’s focus on PhDs in the strategic plan.
Mr A Ainslie (ANC) asked if the NRF was able to monitor the impact of allocated funds, especially over time and how the NRF contributes to national objectives such as poverty alleviation and skills development. He asked if there were conditions attached to grants made to students such as: Do they have to pay it back? Are there any work commitments? He asked finally about community engagement and how it can be integrated with expanded research.
Mr Mangaliso responded that the implementers (NRF) are a bit removed from the policy makers, making it difficult to comment on the achievement of national objectives, however, research could go a long way toward finding solutions to problems like poverty and food security and he noted research on crop cultivation and global warming. On monitoring he said it was being done continually and that results were periodically presented.
Dr Albert Van Jaarsveld, Vice President: NRF, answered the question of student grant conditions and said that they sought repayment only from students who fail to complete their degrees and that other conditions did not generally apply to leaving the country. He noted that the NRF did not think in terms of retention of PhDs as much as they think this foreign exposure is intrinsic to generating better research in the future. As to the investment in community engagement, he said understanding of what works is limited and active research would be needed to ensure this spending would have the desired impact.
Mr C Morkel (ANC) referred to global research and development (R&D) output by 2015. He wanted clarity on the proposed contribution to knowledge. Mr Mangaliso responded that the NRF wanted to contribute much more but needed to increase it own capacity and retention.
Mr Morkel then queried the Pipeline graphic (slide 30 of the NRF presentation) and noted that only 30% of all senior certificate graduates have Science and Technology (S&T) qualifications and went on to outline the alarmingly large drops per level in numbers of participants along the pipeline (from undergraduate to honours to masters to PhD levels). He noted that the pipeline phase from honours to PhD levels were of particular concern.
Prof Daya Reddy, Chair of NRF Board, responded that the Honours problem encapsulates the serious need to effect a more efficient pipeline and this would go a long way to solving the problem. He said that an elitist view of Honours and higher level education by students often prevented them from pursuing this, once they have graduated. The NRF had to engage actively to unblock this gateway.
Mr Van Jaarsveld agreed and said that there was a need to restructure higher tertiary education to a more American model. He suggested a version of the American Graduate programme, the eventual outcome of which is the PhD qualification. If a student dropped out some time before the end that would be tantamount to a Masters qualification. This approach would serve the need more effectively.
Mr P Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) asked if there were efforts to turn research into a practical reality. He asked if there was assistance to researchers in order to incentivise those researchers to continue as well as contribute to the country’s economy. He also asked about the Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) and efforts to systematise this. Lastly he commented that a strategy was needed to control the movement of PhDs (abroad) and thereby address the domestic shortage.
Mr Mangaliso commented on the pride that is evident in most PhDs that have left the country and said that the key to retention lay in compensation. He said that there was much more competitive payment overseas and that rewards and remuneration would offset these human capital losses. On IKS, he said that efforts were being made to formalise this system to benefit society at large.
Mr McLean Sibanda, Senior Patent Attorney (Innovation Fund): NRF said that there was a push toward making research more applied to assist technology transfer. They were now focused on encouraging the generation of patents through the Patent Incentive Fund, to have a more market driven research approach that could reap commercial benefits. Dr Van Jaarsveld commented that progress on IKS was unsatisfactory. He said that community participation was low and that partnerships between researchers and practitioners were needed.
Mr J Blanche (DA) voiced his anger at how funds were being allocated. He noted a turnover fund in his hometown where students had to pay back all funds loaned for their studies. He suggested the option of bringing back the apprentice system. He also wanted to know why NRF funded PhD students were not required to work in South Africa, rather than being allowed to leave for more lucrative foreign opportunities. He asked why the lowest investment was made in engineering and noted that the energy crisis necessitated increased spending in this area. He was categorically not in favour of funding being conducted in these ways and was also concerned about the subsequent losses. He asked about how this migrating talent was being replaced and commented that spending on training of matriculants should take precedence over the PhD focus.
Prof Reddy said that indeed a spectrum of qualified people was needed: from tradesman to PhDs. He cited the German tertiary system where they have tertiary vocational schools that turn out highly qualified technicians. After their studies they are also highly paid and well regarded in society, which was a serious shortcoming in South Africa.
He stated that PhDs were needed and that the case of losses was overstated. He used China and India as examples of countries that are actively re-attracting lost graduates by creating opportunities to return. This was working despite the fact that these professional were returning for much less pay.
On the issue of PhD migration, he noted that the advantages of time abroad were numerous and this was all part of the global knowledge system. They were enriched by this, should they return, and a great number of them did.
On the issue of migrating knowledge, Mr Van Jaarsveld said that the main solution to this problem was the development of human capital. South Africa must engage in the global hunt for talent and make efforts to use that talent in meaningful ways. He commented on the difficulties in terms of how this could be done. Regarding the energy crisis he to referred Research and Development (R&D) investment, specifically the contributions made to the development of biofuels and the pebble bed modular reactor by iThemba Labs.
Mr Sibanda also dealt with question of what was being done about the energy crisis. He noted that mining, minerals and manufacturing all had engineering components. He referred to their open call mechanism and the recent change to running closed calls for research applications and its success in its beneficiation of silicon for the provision of photovoltaic cells, in other words, solar power. The biofuels portfolio was also growing to advance the issue of energy generation. He noted a need to commercialise in South Africa technologies that were developed here. He noted the development of the solid polymer electroliser and the South African electric vehicle initiative as examples of projects that would assist in the energy crisis.
Mr B Mnyandu (ANC) asked if the NRF discriminated between domestic and international candidates and highlighted PhD losses as a risk associated with accepting foreign students. He also asked if there could be a collaboration between the NRF and the Department of Education to roll out computer labs and language efficiency initiatives at school level.
Prof Mangaliso said that the NFR was very open, especially to students from Africa due to SADC and Nepad involvement. He brought the Committee’s attention to the fact that research was the NRF’s primary function but said that the NRF needed to go more upstream in a practical way in schools for the fostering of scientific proficiency at school level.
The meeting was adjourned
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