Science, technology and innovation transforming South Africa

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor breaks down the latest budget for the department. (Photo courtesy DST)

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor breaks down the latest budget for the department. (Photo courtesy DST)

South Africa urgently needs to implement programmes and strategies that will create a more inclusive economy in which the benefits of growth are shared fairly and equitably. Our country must decisively respond to the needs and concerns of the marginalised and excluded. I firmly believe that science technology, and innovation can make a decisive contribution.

We live in a rapidly changing world and many countries and people are being left behind as change accelerates and technologies become more complex and pervasive. Innovation policies are being reviewed and remodeled to ensure they are responsive to emerging ICT opportunities. We need to be as nimble as possible in our responses.

Working with the support of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, the department of science and technology (DST) has concluded a review of our implementation of the 1996 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, confirming commendable progress. We are drawing on it to draft a new white paper to guide the national innovation system over the next twenty years.

While acknowledging achievements, it focuses on the wide array of technological advancements before us, including big data, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and genome mapping. All these are part of the fourth industrial revolution that the global community is intently focussed upon. We must not be left behind.

Our theme, ‘The Oliver Tambo legacy — positioning the national system of innovation for the future’, honours one of South Africa’s political giants, who would have turned 100 this year, and who was an outstanding maths and science teacher before leading Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the ANC.

The DST is committed to implementing the National Development Plan by focusing on initiatives that will make a profound impact on economic growth and development.

Our budget programmes for 2016/17 outlined several initiatives aimed at increasing our knowledge production, promoting the growth and transformation of knowledge workers in our system, and supporting increased exploitation of knowledge for development.

Through the work of our agencies, the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, we supported 3 239 doctoral students, as well as 9 353 honours and master’s students, and 4 175 researchers received research grants.

The NRF and the Academy of Sciences are undertaking investigations that will inform future interventions in post-graduate development, and we have also finalised an implementation plan for our human capital development for research and innovation strategy.

Last year we supported 915 graduate and postgraduate students through our workplace preparation programme, and we have secured co-funding of R17.7-million over the next three years to expand the mobile application development project mLab to Kwazulu Natal, the Northern Cape, and Limpopo, which will provide at least 450 young people with training and support in these skills. We also plan to support 54 more start-ups and expand to other provinces.

Our earth systems, marine and polar sciences projects are playing a key role in Operation Phakisa, along with the Ocean and Coasts Management Information System, which protects our 1.5-million square kilometre exclusive economic zone. It supports the detection of illegal fishing vessels and provides information on vessels in marine protected areas.

Earth systems science and indigenous knowledge systems have the potential to boost and diversify the economy through new business opportunities for SMMEs, cooperatives and rural enterprises in areas such as animal husbandry, local veterinary medicine, arts and crafts and traditional health remedies. The Indigenous Knowledge Systems Bill will support this.

The 2017/18 budget is R7.5-billion, just slightly more than the R7.4-billion of 2016/17. Government remains the largest investor in research and development, despite tight fiscal pressures and competing priorities. I don’t need to repeat that we must invest more to be competitive. Money spent on science, technology and innovation today will produce economic growth and improved quality of life in the long term.

The importance of this is clear in our efforts in health innovation. Our department’s Strategic Health Innovation Platform, housed at the Medical Research Council, is producing excellent work under the leadership of Professor Glenda Gray and her colleagues. Professor Gray was recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people for her cutting edge HIV research.

The department is also making good progress with our plan for Biovac to become a fully fledged vaccine manufacturer, with a recent partnership with the US Programme for Allied Technologies for Health (Path) to develop a Group B Streptococcus vaccine.

Research infrastructure

South Africa has strategically invested in astronomy sciences. We have several radio astronomy projects — the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, MeerKAT, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network. I recently declared a new national facility bringing all these under one hub, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory or SARAO.

I have directed my department to explore the possibility of creating a South African Astronomy Observatory as a consolidated national institute. I hope we can conclude this prior to the completion of SKA phase 1 in 2022.

R2-billion will be transferred to the NRF for the completion of MeerKAT and for additional land for the SKA. This financial year, R693-million has been allocated for the SKA project, which has created 7 284 employment opportunities so far through the construction of the KAT-7, MeerKAT and related projects.

In its 11th year, the SKA bursary initiative has funded 919 students, 133 of whom are from other African countries. The DST continues to provide extensive support to schools in Carnarvon. Nine learners from Carnarvon High School have received full-cost undergraduate bursaries.

Our department has also utilised these initiatives to expand, modernise and increase the affordability of ICT infrastructure through providing high speed broadband connectivity to all universities, science councils, national research facilities and public research performing institutions. The Data Skills Development Programme and the DataIntensive Research Initiative of South Africa are also positioning South Africa to seize digital opportunities in the future.

The wonderful OR Tambo Science Centre project promised to Cofimvaba has ironed out teething problems and delays and will be complete by March 31, 2018.

Last, in October last year we published South Africa’s first Research Infrastructure Roadmap, which will provide for the roll-out of 13 medium to large infrastructures over a five-year horizon, the first seven of which will already have been initiated by the end of the year.

Transforming the research enterprise

Expanding research capacity is the department’s main priority, and R4.3-billion is allocated to this branch for 2017/18. The NRF will spend R2.4-billion on student bursaries and research grants and has allocated R500-million for SARCHi (the SA Research Chair Initiative). This will help to attract and retain established researchers who are recognised global experts.

R237-million is set aside to promote transformation through the NRF’s emerging research areas initiatives such as the expanded Thuthuka Funding Framework that supports PhD and postdoctoral research, the expanded NRF postdoctoral placement programme, and the professional development programme, which places young researchers at the NRF and science councils.

This year, at an investment of R68-million, the NRF will place at least 800 graduate and postgraduate students in work preparation programmes under the National Youth Service initiative. In terms of absorbing interns into employment, the programme has had a 68% success rate. It has been expanded it to include graduates from the humanities and social sciences.

Knowledge for economic development and competitiveness

Last year I announced several initiatives aimed at increasing our knowledge production, the growth and transformation of the pool of knowledge workers, and the exploitation of knowledge for development.

One was the establishment of a sovereign innovation fund, which is a priority for public-private funding partnerships aimed at commercialising innovations from the public and the private sector. During this financial year, with the departments of trade and industry, economic development, small business development and other interested parties, the department will make a business case for the fund.

The DST will make an investment of R137-million in the existing seven sector innovation funds — with R84-million for agriculture and R51-million for manufacturing. Industry is providing new funding of R56-million for these funds. Through the initiative the department has supported 189 students at honours, master’s and doctoral levels, and 11 interns. The programme has also generated 20 innovation products and 19 journal publications.

I’m pleased to announce a complementary initiative aimed at developing partnerships with industry, known as the Industry Innovation Partnership Programme. The programme is strengthening the strategic role of the CSIR in industrial development.

A new bio-refinery facility at the CSIR’s Durban Campus, will provide cutting-edge analytical and pilot-scale equipment for bio-refinery technology, and for troubleshooting industrial biomass-processing challenges.

A Photonics Prototyping Facility will provide world-class facilities, technical support, equipment and scarce skills to help industrialise photonics-based technologies.

Over the next three years, R150-million will be invested in re-establishing mining R&D. This investment will help to restore the old CSIR mining research facility in Carlow Road, Johannesburg.

I expect two promising programmes to result in new industries in South Africa.

First, the Aeroswift project 3D printed an aircraft component last year, with Airbus and Boeing interested in using this technology.

Second, the manufacturing of titanium metal powder is progressing well. If this radical innovation is successful, South Africa will be well positioned to develop an entirely new industry.

This year the Technology Innovation Agency will help 2 800 SMMEs to benefit from technical expertise to translate their technological innovations into products and prototypes at a cost of R105-million.

The Department also supported a number of innovators through the Global CleanTech Innovation Programme for SMMEs in South Africa, at a cost of R3.8-million.

The department will disburse R153-million towards technology development and pre-commercialisation processes through TIA, while R228-million will be allocated for continued support for SMMEs and initiatives such as the Youth Technology Programme, the Technology Platform Programme, the Technology Stations Programme, and the Technology Innovation Programmes.

The department will deploy 25 hydrogen fuel-cell technologies using HySA technology before the end of the 2019/20 financial year and has raised close to R40-million in support of the 2020 target these technologies. It will continue discussions with stakeholders across government and the private sector to leverage the remaining R60-million needed to support the deployment of the technology.

Naledi Pandor is South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology