Big ideas for science

The R4,2-billion Finance Minister Trevor Manuel awarded to the Department of Science and Technology in his budget may be one of the smallest allocations to any part of the government machinery, but it is expected to help realise a long list of key projects in 2009/2010.

Among these projects is the establishment of four centres of competence for research on tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/Aids and improved medical devices. Centres of competence pull together all available expertise in the public and private sectors to advance research and innovation in priority areas.

The department also plans to focus on the development of improved medical devices this year.

Nhlanhla Nyide, spokesperson for the department, said this week that experts believe South Africa has the capacity to become a bigger player in the development of medical equipment and services. The department’s target is to generate at least two new income-generating medical products and services from 2010.

Some of the other projects that the department expects to operationalise this year include the establishment of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the National Intellectual Property Management Office and the South African National Space Agency.

Nyide confirmed that the board of TIA, which will be given the task of stimulating scientific innovation and commercialising it, should be in place by April this year and the National Space Agency board later in the year.

He said the establishment of the National Intellectual Property Management Office was well on its way.
It will protect IP generated through public funding.

Another key project this year is to commercialise of the Joule electric vehicle, which was unveiled last year, and to work with the department of trade and industry to develop alternative sources of energy, including hydrogen and fuel cell technologies research.

In the medium term many of these projects will be funded under the department’s new innovation planning and instruments programme. A total of R80-million has been allocated to this programme from 2008/2009 to 2011/2012.

A further critical allocation in the department’s budget in the next three years is R200-million for human capital development through its research chairs initiative and postgraduate bursaries, both of which are administered by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The department has already allocated 72 research chairs in key areas aligned to the government’s strategies. Although the chairs have not grown at the anticipated pace because of budgetary constraints, the department still hopes to achieve 210 chairs by 2010/2011.

As part of the department’s human capital development expenditure the NRF awarded innovation bursaries to 321 postgraduate students in 2008. A total of 86% of these bursaries went to black students and 56% to women.

Last year 43% of bursaries were awarded in engineering and related fields. The innovation programme supported 54 postdoctoral fellows at various institutions.

According to the department’s budget summary, its seven centres of excellence, which are world-class research hubs, trained 313 postgraduate students and produced 218 articles in peer-reviewed journals by the end of 2007/2008.

Although tiny compared with most other government departments, the Department of Science and Technology’s budget is growing, in no small measure because the department does well on spending its allocated money and on delivering on its targets.

According to Manuel’s budget, the department’s spending will increase at an average annual rate of 11% from 2008/09 to 2011/12, thanks to additional allocations of R471,5-million in this period.

The department hopes that growing public spending and financial inputs from the private sector will help it to reach its target of 1% of GDP expenditure allocated to the national system of innovation. The last survey of research and development investment revealed an input of 0,95% of GDP. Countries such as China, the United States and Japan spend well in excess of 1% of their GDP on research and development.

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