Minister Naledi Pandor delivers science and technology policy and she does it well. Her deputy is the experienced Derek Hanekom, whose special interest in hominid origins makes him popular in the paleontological, archaeological and evolutionary genetics’ communities.
In case you think I have come to praise instead of to bury Caesar, I come rather in praise in order to ask a question and it is this: is the Department of Science and Technology (DST) supporting innovation that results in new applications that improve the delivery of water, sanitation and waste, alleviate poverty, improve housing, improve health and provide quality science education?
My impression is not enough is done in dealing with problems of poverty and disease in our country.
Not enough is done in developing energy efficient housing design using modern construction materials.
Not enough is done in developing new technologies for water provision, recycling, sanitation and waste removal.
Not enough is done by far in the development, manufacture and distribution of vaccines for better health, a topic on which I now focus.
The Department funds a spectrum of human and animal vaccines required by our burden of infectious disease, following a biotechnology strategy.
In this Minister Pandor’s responsibility is the nurturing of new ideas, innovative concepts and fresh vehicles to produce vaccines. [From a science point of view, understand that vaccines enhance weak natural immunity. HIV is a disease of immune deficiency and there is no immunity whatsoever, at least in most human beings.]
Vaccine production is not Minister Pandor’s primary responsibility, yet she has to her credit established public-private partnerships, a policy we as the Democratic Alliance (DA) champion. The private sector has responded very well on the manufacturing side, though it must be said that research and development in finding new approaches to dealing with viral strains of malaria and tuberculosis leaves a great deal to be desired, perhaps because of low margins.
It is not the Minister’s problem that the right modern vaccines are not getting to the right farmers in the right quantities. It is the fault of the Honourable Tina Joemat-Petersen’s Ministry whose agricultural extension services are in a sorry state of disorganisation.
Minister Pandor’s responsibilities are with our nation’s science brains. She must support the rapid expansion of our academic science, graduate and post-doctoral communities and the construction of state-of-the-art laboratories. She must spend much more money on the science councils and improve their efficiencies. A mere R60 million is spent on the biologics focus area at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a pittance compared to the monumentally wasteful ten billion Rands spent on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) about which there remains awkward questions, chief among which is the role of a former DG Dr Rob Adam in spinning off a company that housed the PBMR. There are many questions too about the role of former Director-General of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) Dr Bernie Fanaroff, who spun off a company in support of the bid preparations for the competition with Australia over the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio astronomy project.
Minister Pandor would do much better if she focused her efforts and created better efficiencies, before she makes a bid for science councils that presently do not fall under her Ministry.
** Dr Wilmot James MP is the DA alternative Member of the Portfolio Committee on Science & Technology.