Pandor wants tighter research control


Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor wants funding allocated to all research councils – both inside and outside of her department – to fall under one roof to improve co-ordination and resourcing of the country’s research councils.

Presently, research councils such as the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Agricultural Research Council (ARC) receive funding from their respective departments, the Department of Health and Department of Agriculture, the state BuaNews agency reports.

Pandor, briefing the media ahead of her Budget Vote speech yesterday, said she didn’t believe those research councils outside of the department’s control, such as the MRC and ARC, should reside fully under the political control of the Department of Science and Technology (DST). “What I do think is that we need a mechanism that would allow ring-fenced allocation of funding for those institutes to reside within the budget of the DST so that those councils could be assured that they would receive the funding that they should and that funding would not be directed to other sector responsibilities of the sector departments, which often happens with the current arrangement,” she said.

She said her department was concerned that several research councils had from time to time found them under financial duress in the past which could affect the country’s research and innovation abilities. She believes ring-fencing funding for all research councils would also allow her department to better monitor targets such as the number of post-graduate students supported by these councils, the number of publications that emerge from these council and what intellectual property they were producing to boost the country’s innovation and meet its various needs.

Such an arrangement would close any gaps in duplication and pointed out that there had been a decline in research in key areas such as agriculture and health, said the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom. Hanekom said there was no final decision on the fracking application in the karoo and pointed out that in line with the Astronomy Act, the minister had the final say on whether proposed fracking would go ahead if it affected telescopes at Sutherland – either through light or radio interference.

The department is also developing terms of reference for the planned creation of a national committee on science, technology and innovation. Pandor said she had initially approached President Jacob Zuma with the idea of setting up a presidential working group on science and technology, but that he had suggested that a national committee headed by Pandor be set up instead.

The committee would be aimed at improving the co-ordination and planning on science and technology in the country. Turning to the department’s pledge to providing broadband connectivity to all university campuses across the country, Pandor said the department was on track to reach its target by the end of this year. “This means that a student studying or a researcher working in Thohoyandou will have the same connectivity as in Rondebosch (the University of Cape Town),” she said.

To ensure the target is met, an amount of R55 million had been allocated to the provision of broadband at universities based in rural areas, to which the Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande has added R28 million and the SKA project a further R60 million, bringing the total investment in broadband connectivity in 2010/11 — including existing budget allocations — to R217 million.

Turning to the progress of South Africa’s bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, Pandor said that the local SKA office had met all the necessary benchmarks and requirements. She said she was confident that South Africa, which is in the running against Australia, would win the bid when it is announced next year. “Over the past few months, we have worked tirelessly with our international partners, particularly our partners in Africa, to finalise site readiness reports for submission to the Square Kilometre Array International Office,” said Pandor.

The department had recently made site visits to Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia, which are partnering with South Africa in the bid. She said the SKA project had also created a deep continental interest in setting up radio telescopes across the continent, even outside of the nine countries which are taking part in the bid with South Africa.

Ghana would soon be converting a Vodafone communications satellite dish into a radio astronomy telescope, while both South Africa and Mauritius have proposed to launch a low frequency interferometer array, she said. Another outcome of the SKA was that it had been very successful in attracting young and established scientists to the country, she said. The department would also invest R1.4 billion in research equipment and infrastructure over the next three years, while also increasing the number of researchers.

The seven research centres which fall under the department – the CSIR, Tia, NRF, HSRC, SA National Space Agency, Africa Insitute of SA and the Academy of Science of SA – would be critical in growing the number of researchers the country has, she said. Presently, these centres hosted 476 masters and doctoral candidates, she said. In 2010/11, an extra R100 million was allocated to improve the value of post-graduate bursaries awarded by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The department is also looking at developing a way to track students, from the level of school learners to doctorate students. Pandor said her department would fund an extra 62 research chairs over the next three years, to add to the 82 research chairs the department currently funds to the tune of R200 million a year. The new research chairs form part of the South African Research Chairs Initiative, which is a government initiative aimed at attracting and retaining research and innovation excellence in SA universities.

The new chairs will allow for South Africa to have 144 research chairs by 2014 at a cost of R428 million a year.

She said 58% of the department’s R4.4 billion budget would go to its seven public entities, with R1.09 billion to the NRF, R687 million to the CSIR, R433 million to the Technology Innovation Agency (Tia), R209 million to the HSRC, R93 million to the SA National Space Agency, R32 million to the Africa Institute of SA and R11 million to the Academy of Science of SA.

Cabinet approved in principle the idea of buying equity in satellite manufacturing company, Sunspace, either through the department itself or one of its agencies and is conducting a feasibility study on the idea. The idea is that it would be an entity that operates as a commercial company.

Pandor said the department had to report back to Cabinet by June and added that the country had to develop its own satellite manufacturing industry.