Building human capital through science and technology.

Naledi Pandor has a reputation for being one of the most efficient ministers in government. She has proven this in her time as Minister of Education between 2004 and 2009, as Minister of Home Affairs between 2012 and 2014 and in her two stints as Minister of Science and Technology, from 2009 to 2012 and again since 2014.

Pandor draws inspiration from her previous roles in government, and especially from her time in charge of education.

“Having some knowledge of the higher education sector did help me when I came into science and technology because I already had the connections. I knew what was happening in our universities. I knew university leaders and I understood some of the challenges that we had to respond to. There is a huge affinity between science and technology and higher education. That’s why in many countries the Minister of Science and Technology is also responsible for universities. It certainly did assist having had that background,” Pandor said in an interview in her office in Cape Town.

It is this knowledge that she is using to help steer her department in fulfilling the aims of the National Development Plan.

“When one reads the NDP there are a number of aspects which are relevant to the work of the Department of Science and Technology.

“Firstly, the NDP speaks of the need for South Africa to develop its human capital to the highest levels possible. It expects as well that we would support a very competent public service that is able to support the enhanced development of South Africa.

“With respect to science and technology it says that by 2030 innovation and technology should be pervasive in a range of sectors in our society. One of the things we are looking at is whether we can deploy innovative technologies to improve basic service provision in the country.

“We are piloting the demonstration of a number of innovative technology solutions in basic services. For example, sanitation technologies from India are being piloted in a number of rural villages in Eastern Cape and locally developed innovation in renewable energy sources such as hydrogen fuel cells has been deployed in villages in South Africa.

“As technology emerges which supports improved service delivery and which is of benefit to particularly disadvantaged communities, we are ensuring that we deploy those resources. This is part of our contribution to improving basic service provision.

“The second area is to improve decision making in South Africa. We provide tools, especially through the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to support decision making in municipalities such as spatial planning. We have digital tools for spatial planning. We’re monitoring the impact of climate change in communities and we provide geo-spatial data from the South African National Space Agency to municipalities as well as national departments to support them in planning their work.

“Through our built environment initiatives within the CSIR we are also looking at new and improved technologies for road infrastructure. They have technology for repairing of potholes and new built environment material for smoother road surfaces. These are decision and delivery support tools that our department is providing as part of its contribution to the development imperatives of the NDP.”

Pandor said that it is vital for her department to work with other government departments.

“We want other national departments to take up our innovation so that if we use particular sanitation technology, then (Water and Sanitation) Minister (Nomvula) Mokonyane must support us and agree that this is an important innovation to have in her space, and she must integrate that innovation into her new sanitation and water policies.

“We work very closely to ensure that whenever there’s a new support area, we persuade our colleagues in other departments to support the innovation so that it can be imbedded in the sectors that they work in.

“We are very involved in the ocean economy. We have taken a leading role, insofar as research and innovation are concerned, in operation Phakisa that the President has spearheaded.

“But it has not only been in the ocean economy. It’s also in the mining Phakisa and the health Phakisa. Wherever there’s an opportunity for research or innovation to play a part, the Department of Science and Technology is there because this notion of a pervasive influence through all sectors which is in the NDP and which we support.”

Asked about her international focus, Pandor said that while the BRICS countries were important, her department’s focus was on the African continent.

“Obviously BRICS is critical to us, but Africa is the strategic focus for South Africa. I have devoted a lot of time to expanding my collaboration with countries on the African continent because it is absolutely imperative. We have to build science and innovation capabilities in Africa if we’re to compete with the world.

“We work closely with Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana and Kenya, which are SKA partner countries, Kenya, and Tanzania where we are working together on developing high performance computing.

“We refreshed our collaboration with Uganda and are working very well on an essential oils initiative in a local community in Uganda. Our lead institution supporting that is the CSIR.

“South Africa was the first host of AIMS (African Institute for Mathematical Sciences), which is based at Muizenberg, and overseen by UCT and Stellenbosch. We now have AIMS in nine other African countries.

“The success of AIMS from South Africa is something that all of Africa should take up. The latest branch has been opened recently in Senegal, which hosted what’s called the Next Einstein Initiative last year. Rwanda will be hosting it next year.

“We are trying to identify young people who become our future maths and innovation ambassadors on the African continent. It’s a very important initiative and it’s come out of the work initiated and pioneered by South Africa through AIMS.

“I take SADC very seriously. One of my staff who has been seconded to the SADC secretariat as the science officer is based in Gaborone at the SADC headquarters and is the only science official delegated to SADC. She’s doing excellent work.

“I’m also keenly investing in the Pan African University space sciences branch which will be located in South Africa. The Pan African University has five nodes with five different focal areas. South Africa was awarded the space science node and we are implementers as South Africa. It will be based at the University of Stellenbosch with key institutions being the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, University of Cape Town.”

Pandor said that she has always enjoyed a good relationship with the private sector, from her time as Minister of Education when she hosted an annual dinner with CEOs.

“I’ve continued that activity as Minister of Science and Technology. We’ve worked very hard to build a relationship because if you have innovation and don’t have the private sector, you are on a road to nowhere. The private sector is key to the work that we do.

“But added to that is that we are the department that administers a tax incentive for private sector companies investing in research and innovation.
This includes big business, as well as small and medium sized enterprises, in fact any enterprise that is investing in research and wishes to claim a tax relief is able to apply to us.

“We meet with business on a regular basis to explain the incentive and to get feedback on how they’re experiencing the process of applying for this incentive, from an administrative and policy perspective. We’ve had very good feedback.

“We established an advisory group after our first meeting with business in 2014 on this incentive and they have provided me with a report in which they make a number of recommendations to improve administration – it is jointly administered by my department, by Treasury through the SA Revenue Service and the Ministry of Finance.

“We’ve agreed that we will look at their proposed improvements. The application process is rather onerous and we’ve had blockages in processing applications. But it’s a very good benefit where companies can receive back 150% of their investment in research.

“We want them to invest more, so it’s generous. But it’s a very important scheme. Countries like India, Australia and the UK have similar ones. We’ve modelled it on the best.

“Finally, we work with the private sector to develop and promote innovation. One of our successes has been in the development of the hydrogen fuel cells industry. We’ve worked very closely with the platinum sector, especially Impala Platinum and Anglo Platinum who supported and helped to fund the initial research. Hydrogen fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst along with hydrogen, so once the two meet you get a burst of energy.

“We’ve been well supported by the platinum industry, because they see the development of hydrogen fuel cells as a new value addition. Impala is already using the first of the products that have come out of our pilot work through UWC where we have a centre of competence in hydrogen fuel cells. This has been one of the best models of collaboration with the private sector.

“I’m hoping that out of this we’re going to get a major industry by adding value to platinum and produce hydrogen fuel cells that we will market to the African continent and the global community. We’ve been thrilled that the Department of Trade and Industry has recognised this work as very important and has also been a great advocate for the development of a hydrogen fuel cell industry in South Africa.”

Pandor said that over the past 10 years her department has invested more than R-billion in cyber infrastructure in South Africa.

“This is made up of three main institutions. The first is the centre for high performance computing, located in Cape Town. The second is the South African Research Network (SANREN), which allows institutions, universities, science councils and other establishments to have access to digital infrastructure. And finally the Data Intensive Research Initiative of South Africa has recently been introduced.

“These components have up to now been managed as three different projects. But when we looked worldwide we saw similar initiatives housed under one national umbrella to become a cyber infrastructure system. That’s why we decided to develop the National Integrated Cyber Infrastructure System (NICIS) in order to ensure we have a single house for the range of initiatives that exist in South Africa.

“Our creation of NICIS is to exploit the synergies which you get from an integrated cyber infrastructure network. You then allow yourself to have a cluster of institutions which could take a range of focal subject domains which are overseen and managed under an umbrella institution.

“Our experience of the three projects and the R1-billion we’ve invested has led to this creation of a national institution and one of our goals is to increase our human capital.”

Pandor said that her department took their strategic priorities very seriously. These include socio-economic development, research human capital, infrastructure, international relationships and international relations.

“We have activities in each of these areas and are trying to ensure that we support innovation and research in each of them.

“With respect to service delivery, we’re working with municipalities in supporting their local economic development initiatives and on the socio-economic domain we provide a great deal of support.

“In enhancing research capacity in the country we have a very, very powerful equipment infrastructure support programme where we ensure that our universities and our science councils have high level infrastructure and equipment to allow our scientists to do their work with the best equipment possible.

“It’s a R70-million a year programme. It’s a national infrastructure initiative through which we provide support to universities. Of course, we are making a R1-billion investment in human capital from honours right up to post-doc level in South Africa.

“On international relations we’re doing extremely well. I spoke about BRICS as well as Africa but one of the real successes is our partnership with the European Union where we’re one of their top five research partners through our researchers taking up a range of initiatives.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that in each of our areas of strategic priority, we are doing very exciting work. For example, we’ve been able to grant over 409 grants for research equipment for institutions in the country.

“We’ve included funding for nanotechnology innovation, through our national nanotechnology equipment programme. So we don’t only look at the normal research infrastructure, we look at high end and new, emerging areas of research, such as nanotech which is a wonderful growth area for South Africa.

“We also are working on a national research infrastructure roadmap right now, where we’re doing an audit of all that we’ve invested in since 2007. We are looking at the gaps, and where should we have further improvement. Should we expand the nanotechnology? Are we doing enough in the clinical and health sciences? Do we need equipment in engineering sciences? Where exactly should we focus? The intention with the audit is to develop a research infrastructure roadmap for South Africa for the next 10 years.”

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