Address by Naledi Pandor MP, Minister of Science and Technology, at the National Research Foundation Awards, Cape Town
13 Sep 2012
Dr Gillian Arendse, Programme Director
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, CEO of the NRF
Ladies and Gentlemen
It’s a pleasure and a privilege to address you this evening.
The National Research Foundation (NRF’s) main task is to fund and support human capital in our universities and I want to make a few observations, drawing on the science and technology ministerial committee’s report, about human-capital development (the training of scientists) in our universities.
They begin by highlighting our challenges.
First, the current participation rate is 16%. This is below the target of 20% set in 2001 in the National Plan for Higher Education. (It is worth noting that women’s participation is higher than men’s in all race groups.) And 16% is too low to make the transition from what the Mincom calls an “efficiency driven” economy to an “innovation-driven” economy.
Second, we have a low graduation rate. We have a low graduation rate and a high drop-out rate at all levels of study.
Third, our postgraduate enrolments are too low. The Mincom says: ‘the survival of many postgraduate programmes is contingent on the enrolment of foreign students’. So the pipeline is too narrow and it gets narrower as we go to the doctoral and post-doctoral levels.
Fourth, there are significant barriers to the expansion of the post-doctoral sector “in the form of inappropriate tax regimens and academic staff progression structures”.
As most of you will know, the post-doctoral sector is of increasing importance. It should be the main route into an academic job. But there is no room for new entrants in “the antiquated structure and organisation of the academic employment system at higher education institutions”.
This ministerial committee goes on to say:
“The impressive scale of recent salary improvements for academic staff – partly fuelled by competition between higher education institutions (HEIs) and science councils and partly by general corporatisation of the operating model for HEIs – coupled with liberal application of the ad hominem promotion system and the virtual elimination of probation, has made the creation of every new post a matter of serious long-term budgetary concern.”
Last, we have a differentiated higher education system in fact but not in policy. On the one end we have a core of research universities and on the other end a core of teaching universities. The problem is that we don’t fund higher education as a differentiated system. Our research universities cry under-funding, while our universities of technology don’t play as important a role as they should in applied science and technology. And, we do not adequately fund (or value) high quality undergraduate teaching and learning.
We should probably add that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) have not yet developed a coordinated strategy to address these complex challenges.
I am pleased at the growing number of successful researchers. The recent Women in Science awards suggest we are making progress. We must encourage all university academics to upgrade their qualifications and to engage in collaborative research. It’s clear that the humanities and social sciences need greater funding and support for their role in interpreting and explaining complex socio-economic questions to do with identity, transformation and democracy.
We also have to develop new programmes for the next generation of academics, paying particular attention to post-doctoral fellowships.
The NRF will offer fellowships to senior postdoctoral fellows who will be groomed to take-up of research leadership positions and as potential candidates for the South African Research Chairs Initiative. Our target is for five out of ten candidates to be women and/or eight out of ten to be black. Awards will consist of a taxable salary of R350,000 per annum and a grant of up to R100,000 per annum for running and travel expenses. Approximately 100 awards will be made within the next three years.
The ministerial committee has also recommended the creation a new category of research institute to contain multi-focus, high-level research concentrations supported by a long-term investment.
A linked recommendation is that we should resource “(both from outside and inside institutions) departments or research enterprises that are demonstratively capable of attracting and hosting large numbers of successful postgraduates”.
The implication of both of these recommendations is that our globally unique system of rating academics should be augmented by an emphasis on excellence in departments. In other words, we should rate the research institute and not the man or woman who leads it. A couple of year ago I indicated my belief that the current rating system needs to be revised and there is evidence-based support for my belief in the last NRF institutional review.
The ministerial committee also recommended an increase in the value of grants that at the moment average out at around R200,000 each.
We will introduce a once-off research development grant to qualifying researchers with a valid NRF Y-rating. We plan to award 115 research development grants of up to R300,000 each.
And we will continue to make block study-grants available for part-time doctoral students. The award of R10,000 will be tenable for a minimum period of one month. A hundred block study-grants will be made in the next three years.
The NRF recently announced a call for a new Centre of Excellence in palaeosciences and will also be identifying five additional Centres of Excellence in the current financial year.
In closing, let me say this: the NRF should pay closer attention to the nature of the research it supports. At the moment the NRF focuses on the development of the scientific research force (it focuses on human capital) rather than on the research it supports.
Where is South Africa able to make a unique contribution to knowledge? Clearly we have invested heavily in astronomy and the result has been winning the bid to build SKA in the northern Cape.
Where else can we replicate our astronomy success? There are a number of areas – in heath, in energy, in food production - that suggest themselves in both old and new science and technology fields.
This brings to my mind the late Meles Zenawi, leader of Ethiopia since 1991 who died earlier this month. Under Meles’ leadership, Ethiopia was transformed from a virtual failed state in 1991 into one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
For me, his greatest achievement lay in building the foundations of a ‘green’ economy in Ethiopia. He built a ‘green’ economy in an arid and war-torn land. That is his legacy.
And you can find his legacy in the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy, the first of its kind in the world, announced in Oct 2011 just before the UN climate talks in Durban. The May 2012 World Economic Forum on Africa held in Addis Ababa was Ethiopia’s moment. It reconfirmed Ethiopia’s historic influence and was the springboard for Meles’ green vision.
What we in South Africa can learn from Ethiopia is how to organise large numbers of people in building mega-scale green projects.
We have the renewable energy projects underway through the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Industrial Development Corporation. We have the national infrastructure programme under way and under direction from the Presidency.
And we have the National Development Plan completed and accepted.
In the science and technology sector we have much work to do in steering our innovation eco-system into new directions.
The scientists we celebrate tonight will certainly play a key role in steering us in an innovative direction.
Thank you. I would like to conclude by congratulating all the award winners here this evening.
Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
13 Sep 2012
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