Ngubane: Parliamentary Media Briefing, February 2003 - Science and Technology (20/02/2003)

20th February 2003

Date: 20/02/2003
Source: Department of Science and Technology
Title: Ngubane: Parliamentary Media Briefing, February 2003 - Science and Technology


On 1 August 2002, President Thabo Mbeki announced the separation of the former Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) into two departments, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), both under one Ministry. This development was aimed at ensuring that both departments were focused in their approaches to their very different activities. The wealth of knowledge possessed by officials in both departments made a smooth transition possible, and service delivery to our clients was not compromised.

In 2003, the DST will embark on programmes complemented by processes to implement and accelerate delivery in the Science and Technology portfolio. Some of the focal areas for further implementation include further implementation of the new National Research and Development (R&D) Strategy approved by Cabinet last year.

The R&D Strategy advocates a radical approach to research and development missions for poverty reduction. Missions are to be initiated in various fields, including biotechnology, information and communication technology (ICT), technology for manufacturing, technology to leverage knowledge, and technology to add value to the country's natural resources. In managing this process DST will create an infrastructure with the capacity and dedication to draw together and integrate the management of innovation, incubation and diffusion initiatives in the country, such as the Innovation Fund and Support Programme for Industrial Innovation.

The R&D Strategy's approach to human resource development is to turn the tide radically to the increase the number of women and people from previously disadvantaged communities entering science-related fields in South Africa. We hope to achieve a target of 7,5% of matriculants with university exemptions in mathematics and science in 2012, as compared to the current level of 3,4%.

The National Biotechnology strategy approved by Cabinet in 2001 forms an important component of the R&D strategy. It addresses new developments in biotechnology and the country' s vulnerability with respect to exploitation of our biodiversity and indigenous knowledge and the advent of new technologies. What is critical is the need to continue to mobilise academics to develop far more holistic understandings and interventions to increase the rate of innovation in our society. We need to continue developing specific capacities in the social sciences to understand and strengthen our system of innovation. We recognise the overlaps of, for instance, agriculture with indigenous knowledge, biotechnology, and earth observation that need a systematic integrated approach.

The Biotechnology strategy requires complete engagement of our people with biotechnology at all levels, to enhance economic opportunities that would ensure that we become an economically viable society. Implementation of the strategy is already on a sound footing with the establishment of Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres (BRICS).

To establish (BRICS), DST received proposals by consortiums comprising of academics institutions, private institutions and research councils to form three Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres representing specific regions in the country. The BRICS are investment that promotes research and development, entrepreneurial services, technology platforms, intellectual property management, business incubation. Each centre will specialise in specific areas of technology within the national development imperatives, local expertise and market opportunities.

The key three centres to leverage biotechnology opportunities according to specialisation in biotechnology are:

* Biopad BRIC in Gauteng region focuses on animal health and industry/environmental related biotechnology
* Ecobio BRIC in KwaZulu-Natal focuses on human health and bioprocessing, with a plant biotechnology focal area to contribute to plant biotechnology
* Cape Biotech Initiative BRIC in the Western Cape focuses on human health and bioprocessing.

The National Bioinformatics Network forms a strong bioinformatics data management, Information Technology, genomics) foundation required for innovation and advancement in biotechnology.

These centres combine business, academic and research capabilities to target areas that are directly relevant to our country needs, as well as providing a platform for global economic participation. The key areas of activity include human health, industrial biotechnology, food security and agricultural production. These significant developments complement existing strategies in ICT and new developments to support the advanced manufacturing industry.

In May 2003, DST will launch South Africa's bid for the site of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA is so named because the "core" of this astronomical instrument will be a square kilometre of radio detectors linked to each other to observe the radio signals from the universe. The SKA belongs to a new generation of radio telescopes, and will be the premier global facility until 2050. The SKA will be funded and built by 2015 by an international consortium of countries and institutions representing all major players in the international astronomy community. The current projected budget is R10 billion. The country that hosts the SKA will derive considerable benefits from this expenditure and the long-term international use of this key facility.

The SKA will complement existing world-class astronomical observatories in the subcontinent, such as the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) at Sutherland (the most powerful optical/infrared telescope in the Southern Hemisphere) and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in Namibia (the most powerful cosmic ray telescope in the world). This would put the Southern African region on a par with Chile in terms of international investment in global science infrastructure in astronomy.

The international bidding process for the SKA site has begun and the final decision regarding both the site and the preferred technology will be made in late 2005 by the consortium, which includes institutions from 15 countries including the United States of America, India and China. South Africa has observer status. At this early stage, potential front-runners for the SKA location appear to be Australia, the United States and South Africa.

The SKA needs to be located in a "radio quiet" zone 50 kilometres in diameter. This means that in such a region human-generated radio signals have to be at an absolute minimum. Although the high levels of foreign investment associated with the SKA mitigate this consideration, Cabinet support the bid for this international facility. At this stage, the most promising South African sites are in the Northern Cape Province.

The Southern African region, particularly South Africa, has some of the best astronomical viewing conditions in the world. In the case of cosmic ray astronomy, optimum sites are located in arid high altitude regions. For optical/infrared astronomy there is the added requirement of zero light pollution. For radio astronomy, arid conditions provide potential for a greater frequency range, but radio quietness is essential. South Africa has the added advantage of having well-developed astronomy and engineering competencies to exploit, maintain and construct the various kinds of astronomical instruments required.

SKA consortia have been established in the United States, Europe, Australia and India. On August 10, 2000, at the International Astronomical Union meeting in Manchester England, a Memorandum of Understanding <> to Establish the International Square Kilometre Array Steering Committee <> (ISSC) was signed by representatives of eleven countries (Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America). The ISSC aims to promote the SKA as an international project.

The international bidding process for the SKA site has begun and the final decision regarding both the site and the preferred technology will be made in late 2005 by the ISSC, which includes institutions and individuals from 15 countries including the United States, India, China and South Africa. South African scientists serving on various SKA committees on behalf of South Africa have already expressed a non-binding interest.

If the SKA is constructed in South Africa, this will make Southern Africa the most advanced region for multi-wavelength astronomy in the world. The SKA is geared to benefit South Africa scientifically by attracting the best astronomers from around the world to our country. The geopolitical benefit to the African continent is equally high, as job opportunities will be provided.

DST announces that this year, South Africa will host the 42nd Executive Committee Meeting and Ministerial Gathering of the Commonwealth Science Council (CSC). The CSC has significant initiatives to strengthen the science and technology capacities of Commonwealth countries. The CSC meeting will complement and support the objectives of the processes such as New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). The main thrust of the CSC meeting will be to discuss the critical role of Commonwealth Knowledge Network (CKN) in leveraging science and technology capabilities in both the formal and informal sectors of CSC members. It will also focus on the establishment and strengthening of centres of excellence.

In the past year, we have been engaged in facilitating a commitment of funding from the European Union (EU) to the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States to promote technology programmes in these countries. In 2003, a key conference in Cape Town set the scene in this regard, and follow-ups were made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. We will continue to engage the EU and the ACP to assist in funding the promotion of science and technology programmes. We believe our international co-operation programmes in the African context; provide a financial framework for the centres of excellence envisaged in the NEPAD base document.

For more information please contact Andrew Aphane at 082 387 5615
Issued by Department of Science and Technology
20 February 2003