Unabriged budget address: Ministry of Science & Technology

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Speech by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor MP, introducing the Department of Science and Technology budget vote debate 20 April 2010

Introduction

Speaker, members, deputy minister and stakeholders, I’m pleased to welcome you to this presentation of the budget vote of the Department of Science and Technology. Those of you who have walked through our modest exhibition have been able to get some insight into some of the work that is being supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). As you will have, seen we operate in a wide range of fields from aerospace to palaeoanthropology, stem-cell research to nanotechnology, reviving African identity to understanding social change and advancing excellence in health and agriculture. We have also contributed to South Africa’s first electric car, the Joule.

The science and technology sector is replete with examples of excellence and has immense potential to support South Africa in responding to a wide range of challenges while also advancing us in innovation and technology-based business development.

The past financial year has been an active and very productive year for the department. We have participated in shaping government’s agenda for growth and industrial development while also acting on our intention to establish a robust and productive system of innovation.

Research, development and innovation

Our primary mandate is the promotion of research and development.

Government has supported this objective by ensuring that we have continued growth in research and development funding. Our 2006 R16 billion investment in research and development grew to R18 billion in 2007. This is not yet the one percent of Gross Domestic Products (GDP) we want to achieve, but we are tantalisingly close at 0.93 percent. Speaker, we believe we should aim at 1,5 percent of GDP by 2014, if we are to build on the progress achieved in the past six years.

Our 2002 national research and development strategy and our 2007 ten-year innovation plan remain the basis for our interventions. I have directed the department to develop an integrated research and development strategy document drawing on these two important strategic policies. This will ensure we have a coherent strategic framework.

Members are aware that the ten-year plan focuses on five priority areas, while also integrating research areas that are elaborated in the 2002 research and development strategy. In the past year we have provided support to programmes that bolster research and innovation in biotechnology, hydrogen energy initiatives, advanced materials manufacturing and the Square Kilometre Array, among many others.

Speaker, our investment in research is directed at ensuring that we enhance and expand excellence in universities, science councils and industry. Four important objectives are being actively pursued: adequate human capital and significantly expanded research and development activity, socio economic development, innovation and international research collaboration.

Human capital in science and technology

Human capital development is the key to our intention to build a sustainable platform for innovation. We need thousands of talented and skilled researchers and technologists if we are to achieve the ambitious goals we have set for the sector. Investment in support for bursaries has grown every year since 2004. The allocation for 2010 increases by R76 million from the 2009/10 allocation. The value of awards has been negatively affected by inflation and given the important need to ensure we attract and retain the most talented we have decided to allocate a further R52,7 million in the 2010 academic year to improve the value of grant-holder linked and free-standing bursaries.

We have also provided funding to improve our investment in academic and research staff and in research infrastructure. We will expand our research chairs initiative by adding at least 20 new research chairs within the medium term expenditure period. This initiative has allowed us to attract leading researchers and doctoral candidates and is a programme we need to expand well beyond the planned 210 chairs.

Speaker, we are also working with the Department of Higher Education and Training to improve the qualification profile of academics and researchers at our universities. Currently approximately 34 percent of university academics have a doctoral degree. Such a degree is a fundamental prerequisite for a person to participate meaningfully in research as well as supervise post-graduate students.

Honourable members, our science councils and national facilities are all making a contribution to this objective by training interns and masters and doctoral candidates. Along with universities they are making an immeasurable contribution. We need to ensure that we provide all these institutions with sufficient resources to continue to play a role in national development.

Speaker, it’s my intention to appoint a ministerial committee to review the national innovation system and assess whether our systems and infrastructure are of a quality to support our implementation of our national research agenda. I intend to use the committee’s report to develop a national science and technology infrastructure investment plan.

We will continue to invest in infrastructure even as we develop a plan. An amount of R1,35 billion is provided for research and equipment infrastructure in the current medium term budget. Of this R538 million is allocated to the South African National Research and Education Network (SANREN) and the Centre for High Performance Computing.

Our expanding research mandate and activity will have to be supported by capable and efficient institutions that have the capacity and flexibility to identify talent and opportunity and to ensure sustained support to established researchers. In the past few years the National Research Foundation (NRF) has been assigned a wide range of mandates and strategic contracts. This may have distracted it from its core purpose of funding research, providing high-quality research facilities and promoting innovation. I will direct the DST and the NRF board to assess the impact of ring-fenced funding and contracts on the ability of NRF to execute its mandate. One area that requires attention is the development of black and women senior researchers, the NRF will advise us on steps to be taken to achieve higher levels of success.

We will also work closely with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) to determine support interventions to give impetus to the humanities, the social sciences and the study of Africa. Both councils are doing excellent work in these fields and I’m committed to ensuring they enjoy full support from the DST and the ministry.

Earlier this year I signalled my intention to review the current location of the ratings system. I’m hopeful that the NRF and Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF) will advise me on the most appropriate location for ensuring continued attention and reward for excellence in research and development. Given the challenge of transforming the sector (to improve its quality and to increase black and female researchers), rewards for nurturing non-traditional researchers and for institutions that are establishing research profiles will also be addressed.

One of the neglected areas is collaboration with universities of technology. Our mandate of technology innovation and promotion means dedicated attention must be given to applied research institutions. Universities of technology have close links with industry these could be useful in securing increased access to innovative ideas and programmes in industry.

Honourable members, we will pursue improved links in the triple helix of universities, government and industry.

Our expansion programme will devote increasing attention to ensuring co-ordinated government research support. Government invests via several departments some control key national research facilities we have to ensure that quality infrastructure and high-level skills are present in all national research facilities. I intend to propose the establishment of an Inter-ministerial Science and Technology Committee to ensure improved planning and resourcing. We will investigate the possibility of establishing appropriate mechanisms with the assistance of the National Planning Commission.

Socio-economic development

Science and technology has significant potential for assisting South Africa resolve its most intractable socio-economic problems and challenges. In fact, Speaker, socio-economic problems are opportunities for innovation. One of our biggest challenges is poverty and its associated features of joblessness and community neglect.

In the 2009 budget I indicated that ‘traditional approaches to socio-economic development will not suffice’. All of us must recognise that future growth will depend on how well we exploit science technology and innovation. We have worked with partners on several pilot initiatives that are showing promising results.

Our successful implementation of the Wireless Mesh Network in municipalities in Northern Cape (John Taolo Gaetsewe) and Limpopo (Sekhukhune) indicates that we are on target to connect at least 450 schools and to create sustainable job opportunities for young entrepreneurs who will manage service provision. The DST also provides support to a number of technology transfer initiatives that are directed at addressing poverty. These are directed at innovative local technology solutions, creation of SMMEs, sustainable job and wealth creation.

Aquaculture is a noteworthy example. The DST supported aquaculture abalone harvesting pilot in Hondeklip Bay in the Northern Cape shows that it is possible to utilise aquaculture to improve abalone production for commercial purposes. The pilot is going to draw in the Northern Cape government, the private sector and ourselves into a R48,8 million capital investment project to develop an abalone farm with the production capacity of 120 tonnes, creating 120 full-time jobs and 25 part time job opportunities. A women-owned abalone basket manufacturing SMME to produce baskets for commercial production has been created. Two abalone hatcheries will also be established to draw on IP that emerged from innovation fund supported research. The hatcheries will be built in the Northern Cape and the Western Cape.

A number of other research-based business initiatives that draw on existing programmes will give rise to new enterprises and new jobs exploiting opportunities derived from indigenous knowledge, advanced manufacturing and chemicals development.

Good progress is also being made in an innovative process for the production of low-cost titanium. Two patent applications have been filed on the primary process. Initial success in this research will be supported by the establishment and operational testing of a primary titanium plant in 2011 to 2012.

Speaker, honourable members, South Africa has a comparative advantage in zircon (we supply 30 percent of the world’s zircon in an unbeneficiated form). Our advanced metals initiative in collaboration with Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) is developing a technology to add value by producing nuclear grade zirconium metal (zircon sells at $800 a ton nuclear grade at $2 300 a ton). An innovative plasma technology process has been developed and three patents have been filed. These are a few examples of our responsiveness to socio-economic challenges. There are many more.

Innovation

The projects I referred to above have been initiated and nurtured by the DST due to an inadequate infrastructure for innovation. Many of these promising initiatives will be handed over to the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) for future funding. The TIA’s priority in the 2010/11 financial year will be to build a high-performance organisation from the merger of the seven entities (Innovation Fund, BRICs). This year TIA will focus on a number of strategic projects, particularly those that address social needs such as the HIV and TB pandemic, education challenges and rural development. The TIA has begun to analyse its historical portfolio starting with information communication technology (ICT) and bio-technology. The re-positioning and restructuring of the current portfolio will take between 12 to 24 months. We believe that the existence of TIA is going to give rise to significant benefits for our economy through research that successfully results in commercial products.

We will soon gazette the regulations to the IP from Publicly Funded Research Act of 2008. The act should come into operation from June this year. We are also planning to establish the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO) to facilitate the setting up of offices of technology transfer at publicly funded institutions.

We have pursued innovation by also initiating ambitious global scale initiatives. I’m pleased that in all our initiatives we provide for post graduate development programmes and promote local technology innovation.

Honourable members, our strategies include a number of science focus areas that draw on our geographic advantage. These include astronomy and earth observation, palaeosciences and antarctic research.

Our most ambitious project is the grand challenge of trying to win the bid for building the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array. This astronomy project involves the construction of the telescope in phases. The first phase KAT7 was completed in January this year – the construction and the demonstration of fringes are ahead of schedule. Construction of the demonstrator telescope the 80 dish MeerKAT will soon begin. This will be a key milestone in meeting the 2012 schedule for a site decision. If we are chosen as the site country significant international funding will flow into South Africa and our partner countries on the continent. If we win the bid the central location will be in Carnavon in the Northern Cape with other parts of the array as far as 3000 km away in eight African partner countries.

Speaker, we also plan to build on our successful satellite initiative SumbandilaSat. The space industry we plan to develop for South Africa will generate satellite based products that will impact across a much wider range of sectors. Sumbandila was a beginning; we are planning an African constellation of satellites and an India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) satellite.

International collaboration

One of the emerging areas of success is our growing portfolio of well crafted international partnerships. This is consistent with government’s aim of pursuing African advancement and enhanced international cooperation. We have focused on relations with key partners in the North, in the South and with emerging economies. We have over 60 international agreements/relations; we are reviewing these to leverage the best returns on our investments.

In the past year DST accessed over R300 million in international funding supports for South African researchers. We have benefited from and led several important initiatives. For example in the IBSA sphere we have played a role in nanotechnology flagship projects. Many African countries do not have the financial means to contribute to joint projects. Our department is also constrained in its international budget. However, we are pleased that several partner countries (Uganda, Mozambique and Namibia) have placed funds in a bilateral call for proposals. We are also liaising with Algeria, Kenya and Nigeria on the African satellite project. The role we play in the training of senior researchers for all of Africa and in supporting large projects means we must be ready to devote more resources to international partnerships.

In closing, I wish to thank Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom, the Director-General (DG), Deputy Director-General (DDGs), all officials, my minister’s office team the board chairs and members of all science councils, CEOs and the honourable members of the portfolio committee.



Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
20 April 2010