Department of Science and Technology Strategic Plan and Budget 2008/9

Science and Technology

16 May 2008
Chairperson: Mr G Oliphant (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology presented its Strategic Plan and Budget for 2008/09. The vision and mission was reviewed. The 10 Year Innovation Plan was discussed, with special mention made of the Grand Challenges and human capital development. The Department tabled a slide depicting its role, in particular clarifying its responsibilities as well as what fell outside its mandate. The five principal goals were set out. again There was strong focus on the development of human capital for Research, Development and Innovation. The broad focus was to address poverty, improve quality of life and develop young people in science and technology. Recent achievements were listed, including the numbers of researchers, and the fact that 125 unemployed graduates had been deployed to 22 Science Centres. Two new innovation centres were set up for nanotechnology and nanoscience research. The “grand challenges” were described as Farmer to Pharma, Space Science, Energy, Climate Change and Human and Social Science. There would be nurturing of young learners, a focus on crops for biofuels, green transport, public awareness, legislative protection for indigenous knowledge systems and development of the titanium industry. The financial resources were summarized by programme and economic classification. It was indicated that the budget estimate for 2008/9 was R3.7 billion, rising to R4.5 billion by 2010/11. The programme and economic distribution comparisons were tabled.

Members asked questions on a wide variety of pertinent topics, including the staff complement and vacancy rate, whether there had been approval of the 10 Year Innovation Plan had been approved and what the project allocation was. Further questions asked how poverty alleviation was addressed, whether successful pilot projects were taken further by other government departments, promotion of prepayment meters and the suggestion that the Department should adopt a lead role on this. The Department was asked what its role in social development was, what it was doing to create technologists and how the problem of unemployed graduates was being addressed. There was also a suggestion that the mandate be extended beyond a facilitative role. More detail was requested on the titanium industry, the communication and information dissemination process, the relationships with the science councils, the application of new technologies and the alignment of the National Research & Development Strategy and the National Industrial Strategy. The retention of publicly funded PhDs was a recurring issue, with details sought on levels of retention, return on the investment and a suggestion that PhDs should be more formally contracted, and their progress perhaps tracked, to ensure retention. Details were also requested on whether there was a gender desk, and employment equity breakdowns. The Department was given a list of questions to respond to during the next engagement.

Meeting report

Department of Science and Technology (DST) Strategic Plan and Budget 2008/09
Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General, Department of Science and Technology, presented the DST's Corporate Strategy 2008/9. The vision of the DST was to create a prosperous society that derived enduring and equitable benefits from science and technology. Its mission was to develop, co-ordinate and manage a National System of Innovation (NSI) that would bring about maximum human capital, sustainable economic growth and improved quality of life for all. The 10 Year Innovation Plan was highlighted, with particular reference to the Grand Challenges and human capital development, and the clear articulation of all plans. Graphs of the stages of development of technology were presented, showing a progression from the Age of Steam (Industrial Age) through the matured Information Age to the Bio-economy stage currently in its infancy.

Further graphs were tabled to clarify what the DST was responsible for doing, and also what lay outside its DST's sphere of influence. The five principal goals were discussed, again with a strong focus on the development of human capital for Research, Development and Innovation (RDI). The broad focus was to address poverty, improve quality of life and develop young people in science and technology. Recent outputs included the accomplishments of Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres (BRICs), the 72 research chairs recently awarded by South African Research Chairs Initiative, and the surprising result that 70% of BSc Honours students in the Innovation Honours Bursary decided to stay and finish their Masters or PhD qualifications. Additionally 125 unemployed graduates had been deployed to 22 Science Centres and 2 new innovation centres were set up for nanotechnology and nanoscience research for manufacturing, water, health and mineral beneficiation applications. R&D surveys showed that business undertook 58.3% of research on an in-house basis.

The five “grand challenges” of the 10-year plan were outlined. These were Farmer to Pharma, Space Science, Energy, Climate Change and Human and Social Science. Dr Mjwara noted that the performance indicators as set out were vital to achieving the medium term targets. Specific output targets included the nurturing of young learners, a focus on crops for biofuels, using 2010 as a showcase for green transport and to raise public awareness, legislation on protection of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS), and the development of the titanium industry.

Dr Mjwara pointed out that financing would be necessary to achieve these aims. He gave a summary of the financial resource, outlined according to the various programmes. He discussed the growth in financial resources, distributions and economic classification. He reviewed the DST organogram and the public entities reporting to the DST, all of whom would have to be aligned to implement the innovations.

The budget for 2008/09 was then outlined. The budget for 2008/9 was R3.7 billion, rising to R4.5 billion in 2010/11. The growth in financial resources since 2005 was tabled, together with illustrations that the actual expenditure had matched the budget. The programme distribution and economic classification were summarised. The public entities and agencies reporting to the Department were set out, and Dr Mjwara concluded that they were aligned to implement innovation plans. He felt that performance had been satisfactory, that there had been steady growth in resources and the continued focus on innovation skills was the right path to follow.

The Chairperson opened the question and answer session by asking about staff and vacancies.

Dr Mjwara said there were about 240 people in the staff complement, with a vacancy rate of about 7,4%. He said DST was currently in the process of filling these posts.

The Chairperson wanted to know if the 10 year innovation plan had been approved.

Dr Mjwara responded that the plan had been presented to Cabinet and DST was then asked to return with details, which it was now finalising, in respect of the grand challenges and mission

The Chairperson asked what the projected allocation was.

Dr Mjwara could only offer a  “thumbsuck” estimate, that the Department would need approximately 2% of GDP. He said this figure would need more calculation before a definitive amount was reached.

The Chairperson requested that the organogram include names, so that the Committee could stay informed. He would like to see the staff complement to be complete.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) referred to the overview of responsibilities. He had been pondering over this and it had been of great help in answering his questions on what the core business of DST was, in order to determine what could reasonably be demanded of it.

Mr Ainslie asked if the Department could not find a way of locating poverty alleviation in their business. He said there was plenty of evidence of progress in Annual Reports of all but one of the key deliverables, namely the application of technologies to address poverty and improve the quality of life of all South Africans. He noted that the poverty alleviation pilot project did not go beyond the pilot phase. He realised that this could not be taken further by the DST. He asked for comment on this as well as on how government broadly could be persuaded to implement the projects that were proven effective by the DST.

Dr Mjwara responded that problem of poverty alleviation was complex, and cut across all departments. He asked if the Committee could clarify what it needed. Institutional funding was a problem and government did not take over pilot projects. The lack of implementation was largely a result of the lack of appropriate skills and management capability. One way to address this would be done through the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). This could assist with the right skills and technology transfers. He said there was a need to lobby for funding from the numerous philanthropic organisations who would be willing to provide this.

Prof Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director General: DST, responded that a sector support budget had been secured from the European Union (EU). The funds had come with almost no strings attached, other than that they be used to make an impact on poverty alleviation. The parties were having a meeting in the following week where proposals would be made. This was a process of negotiated support with a wide range of US and UK based philanthropic organisations. The DST was assessing their willingness to support a government department, as these organisations usually worked at institutional level.

Mr J Blanché (DA) asked what was being done about promoting technologies such as pre-payment meters for electricity and water. He said that this would be of assistance to local government who were in arrears because they could not collect what was owed to them. He said South Africa had outstanding systems and the DST should take the lead.

Dr Mjwara replied that DST would have to work with the Department of Local Government on this. He said the ICT system would be used to collect the money. If no payment was made it was possible to cut off the system.

The Chairperson said this would be difficult. The Committee wanted to see positive results on the ground. 

Mr Blanché wanted to know what could be done to create technologists.

Mr Lucky Khumalo, Manager: DST, replied that DST was using graduates to develop capacity, so that they could drive technology forward.

Mr Blanché congratulated the DST on their plan and budget, which he would support.

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) said she was impressed by the EU funding. She asked if the Department thought it was on the correct track to socio-economic development.

Dr Mjwara responded that DST had made progress in this, for example in the TB genome project and the nano project on administering drugs. He said the DST was not able to move away from these projects to develop a one-country programme to maximise the impact on people. He added that the Grand Challenges were an attempt at moving in this direction, using competent centres.

Mr Robert Kriger, Manager, National Research Foundation (NRF), said that social development could be seen in the 3 pillars of the NRF. He said this was cross cutting and looked at aspects of community engagement such as community research through the NRF's Research Support Agency.

Ms Ngcobo raised an interest in the development of the titanium industry and asked how much electricity the titanium industry would consume.

Dr Mjwara responded that the envisaged titanium production would consume a fair amount of electricity. He said it would take some time to get the titanium project up and running as it was still in the elemental phase. He said it would probably only start in 2013, by which time the power crisis would hopefully be resolved.

Ms Ngcobo referred to the facilitative role of the DST and asked if there was success in co-operating with different departments. She asked if the DST's research was being implemented.

Dr Mjwara replied that interdepartmental co-operation was a challenge that often came down to personalities. He said these matters were negotiated in the Clusters, where conflicts of mandates and leadership did arise. In short, there was a mixed bag of success.

The Chairperson suggested the DST's mandate might have to be extended. He reiterated that progress had to be seen on the ground, and that was where the Directors General should be deployed. He said that it might be necessary to undertake “business unusual” to address this.

Ms Ngcobo drew the Committee's attention to the 55% women awarded the Innovation Honours Bursary and requested an employment equity breakdown. She asked if there was a plan to include people with disabilities.

Dr Mjwara responded that the Department took the point and would include these figures in the future.

Dr Bethuel Sehlapelo, Deputy Director General: DST responded that 83% of those funded were black and that the DST was mindful of representivity issues.

Mr B Mnyandu (ANC) said that gender representation and race breakdowns were important and should be provided.

Dr Mjwara said that breakdowns could be provided by the DST and as a rule, they would be provided in the future.

Ms Ngcobo wanted to know the extent to which the DST had been able to communicate with and keep people informed.

Dr Mjwara responded that reporting by the Science Councils took place and that there was no problem with the DST mechanisms. He said this was well defined as far as the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) was concerned. As far as dissemination of information went, he admitted that this too was mixed success and failure.

Mr Mnyandu asked how many South Africans benefited from PhD funding programmes, and what was the return on this investment, and retention of PhD staff.

Dr Sehlapelo responded that the annual R&D survey indicated the number of researchers in the system. He said that individual tracking might not be a good idea. He said it might be better to trace the health of the system, for example, the number of people in the industry who held PhDs.

Mr Kriger said that this tracking referred only to candidates supported by public funds, and that the NRF had such a system.

Mr Mnyandu referred to the policy development process in the strategic overview. He said it was based on the corporate culture and asked how it was affected by social culture in a South African context.

Prof I Mohamed (ANC) agreed with this view of the strategic overview graph. With reference to scientific development, he lamented the fact that the work of Einstein was not mentioned, and believed that it should be.

Dr Mjwara thanked Prof Mohamed for his remarks on Einstein and the continued importance of the theory of relativity.

Prof Mohamed welcomed the report on recent outputs. He said that there had been progress on R&D and would be pleased if the target was reached.

Ms N Madlala-Routledge (ANC) referred to retention of PhD graduates, and said the issue of a contract was important as this was a public investment. This contract could be used to ensure a return on this investment.

Dr Mjwara acknowledged that the retention and tracking of funded PhDs was a challenge. He noted the excellent tracking system that Hungary had as an example to which to aspire.

Ms Madlala-Routledge asked if there was a conscious alignment between the national R&D strategy and the National Industrial Strategy.

Dr Mjwara replied that the 10 Year Innovation Plan was being used to tease this out and decide how that co-operation could be supported. He reiterated that the four main focus areas were Farmer to Pharma, Pharmaceuticals, Nutriceuticals ( food security) and Biofuels. DST was very interested in the Indian model of reverse pharmacology, but were seeking a hybrid with which DST could work.

Dr Boni Mehlomakulu, Deputy Director General: DST, responded that the DST could not commercialise technology for socio-economic development, and were trying to broker partnerships with industry.

Ms Madlala-Routledge asked if the DST had a gender desk and if there was any assessment on how the Department's programmes improve the quality of life of women.

Mr Daniel Moagi, Deputy Director General: DST, responded that the DST did have such a body, in the form of the Youth Gender Disability Unit, which reported to the Presidency.

Ms Madlala-Routledge referred to the application of technologies and asked if the DST added research, as applicable, to solve problems arising here.

Mr Moagi responded that the Department took note of the suggestion to concentrate on research.

The Chairperson asked if the DST could co-ordinate qualitative reports for the Committee.

Ms N Twala (ANC) said that it was undesirable to have unemployed graduates and asked what was being done to redress this.

Dr Sehlapelo responded that the new graduates did not have sufficient skills to compete in the market. The DST was, however, achieving success with graduate programmes. After completing these programmes, graduates were often hired by the market, or chose to continue their studies.

The Chairperson said there might be a need to commit more funding to graduate programmes.

Ms Ngcobo said that Sasol committed a huge amount to bursary funding. She wanted to know if DST did interact with Sasol on funding.

Dr Mjwara responded that the DST was engaging with Sasol on this matter.

Dr Mehlomakulu added that Sasol contracts went some way to solve the unemployment problem with graduates. The Sasol programme was very good and this company had the highest concentration of PhDs in their employ. The DST was trying to move beyond talks to development of programmes in conjunction with them.

The Chairperson concluded the meeting by presenting the DST delegation with a list of question to be answered at a future sitting.

The meeting was adjourned.


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