Address by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor MP, at the second annual conference of the South African Technology Network, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Bellville
16 July 2009
Vice Chancellors of Universities of Technology and other Universities
President and CEO of the National Research Foundation, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld
Ladies and gentlemen
The key to our success in science and technology lies in our ability to achieve success in establishing a vibrant, productive national system of innovation.
South Africa is very well endowed in innovation and technology opportunities. The country has a plethora of policies, institutions, funding bodies and universities all able to play a role in advancing research, development and innovation. At present, these mechanisms have not achieved the desired levels of co-ordination and coherence. We need to ensure co-operation across departments, if we are to have expanded levels of innovation.
There are several areas of policy and action that require attention. First, we have to do more to increase the number of skilled researchers and technologists. The national human resource development strategies should be the focal point for all skills development. SATN should be informing government of its contribution to the national skills plan.
Science councils, such as the National Research Foundation (NRF), should be having planning discussions with universities to determine national responses to our human resource gaps. Universities are good places from which to implement a technology and innovation focused skills strategy. They already have skilled people who can lead in filling those gaps and supporting our progress to accelerate innovation.
Our national innovation strategy has been reviewed
Several of our national strategies, including the National Research and Development Strategy, the Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Strategy, and the Human Capital Development Strategy, are relevant to the theme of this conference.
The Department of Science and Technology's Ten-Year Innovation Plan for South Africa for 2008 to 2018, and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), are especially relevant to this gathering.
The Department of Science and Technology has carried out a critical assessment of our national system of innovation to evaluate whether our interventions in science, engineering and technology are having the desired impact. The 2007 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development policy review was part of this task.
Our country's national system of innovation has evolved significantly over the years, but five years of careful monitoring of its outputs has provided evidence that the system is not operating optimally.
The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) has been launched
The DST has established the establishment of the Technology Innovation Agency as a vehicle for supporting and promoting innovation. The Technology Innovation Agency is part of our effort to address the challenges presented by the "innovation chasm" or the gap between the local knowledge base and the productive economy.
South Africa's innovation system has a substantial repository of local knowledge, which could have a more sustained impact on the real economy. Due to various impediments to productivity and technological innovation, such progress has been inadequate. Market inefficiencies a lack of access to adequate financing (specifically for seed and first-stage financing for technology development), and a relatively weak and uncoordinated intellectual property rights management framework have led to inadequate levels of support for innovation.
This has contributed to the loss of a number of valuable South African technologies to the developed world. One example is the South African developed lithium-battery technology that is used in the electric vehicle. We lost it to the United States of America two decades ago. Also, as recently as two years ago, we lost our thin-film solar-cell technology to Germany.
Clearly, then, innovation accruing from the ideas generated in our business incubators and universities are not going to benefit our country unless we take a greater interest not only in the production of these ideas, but also their subsequent exploitation, commercialisation and management.
Universities of technology are set to benefit from TIA and IP
Under the Technology Innovation Agency Act of 2008, universities of technology must ensure that they capitalise on the TIA initiative, and keep track of TIA programmes so that they are at the forefront of development.
The Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development Act of 2008 is another critical piece of legislation. It provides for the more efficient use of intellectual property emanating from publicly financed research and development, as well as the establishment of the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO), to be temporarily housed at the DST.
NIPMO will be responsible for the establishment of offices of technology transfer in higher education institutions, which will have to be staffed with people who have the requisite mix of skills and interdisciplinary knowledge, and expertise in intellectual property protection, commercialisation and entrepreneurship.
Universities of technology must develop research niches
It's imperative that universities of technology develop research profiles and research capacity, while also training higher levels of qualified technologists. The national plan for higher education (2001) rejected the structural differentiation of universities into teaching universities here and research-intensive universities there.
However, it accepted the principle of differentiation. By that is meant: each university should set itself a mission that suits the region in which it is situated and is aligned to national development targets. Most technology universities have done this and yet the debate goes on. It's useful to remember that in the US and the UK less than five percent of universities are research-intensive, but that does not mean that all the other universities do not undertake research. They have all worked out what is good for them, what they can achieve, and they have focused clearly on those niche areas.
For example, Glenda Kruss's work on partnerships in universities indicates that there are technology universities that have built partnerships in high technology areas, others that are focusing on excellence in teaching, and yet others that are concerned with sustainable rural or regional development.
You know which sort of Technology University you work in and its strengths. The government has invested large sums of money in upgrading infrastructure since 2007 and proportionately more has been earmarked for those institutions that have not had a research legacy.
We need to review the impact of this investment and its support for innovation. Upgrading university infrastructure is not the only component of improving research capacity. The linkages between universities and business and improving the qualifications of staff at technology universities are critical. The low numbers of staff with PhD qualifications is a concern in our country's higher education institutions in general. However, it is a major concern for universities of technologies, especially because of their newly attained status as universities and the concurrent expectations in terms of research development and innovation.
Universities of technology have to make sure that they take advantage of the DST's initiatives, like the South African Research Chairs Initiative and the Centres of Competence programme, to develop their human capital and research capacity.
I hope that in the next few days the South African Technology Network will articulate its views on ways in which to work with government, both the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Science and Technology, in using all our energy and expertise towards making South Africa a more innovative country.
I wish you every success in your endeavours.
Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
16 July 2009