DST connects rural universities

Farzana Rasool
By Farzana Rasool, ITWeb IT in Government Editor.
Johannesburg, 16 May 2012

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) is investing R78 million in connectivity for six remotely-located higher education institutions.

During her budget speech yesterday, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said the department connected about 150 schools in the Nkangala District Municipality, in Limpopo, using a wireless mesh network for broadband connectivity.

The DST receives a total of R4.96 billion for the 2012/13 financial year, of which 53% (R2.6 billion) is allocated to the seven public entities reporting to the department.

These are the Technology Innovation Agency (R455 million), the National Research Foundation (R1.070 billion), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (R737 million), the Human Sciences Research Council (R214 million), the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) (R95 million), the Africa Institute of SA (R33 million), and the Academy of Science of SA (R13 million).

Of the remainder, R1.94 billion is allocated to research and development projects implemented by the various institutions on behalf of the department, and R397 million is set aside for the running cost of the department.

Also, in this financial year, the treasury introduced a new science and technology spending category, which adds together the DST's budget and the budgets of all government research councils, and amounts to R34.2 billion over the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), of which R10.7 billion is allocated in 2012.

“I reiterate our view that SA requires a significant increase in science and technology expenditure if we are to meet our national goals. We are alert to the economic crisis confronting all economies, but it is vital to increase support for research if we are to retain the critical edge of an emerging world-class research destination,” said Pandor.

More excellence

The theme of this year's budget vote was “Innovation for development and socio-economic change”.

The department is using a donor-supported grant of R144 million to build the capacity of priority district municipalities to be in a better position to manage technology and innovation in meeting the challenges of service delivery.

Since May 2009, government has established 62 new research chairs, turning a R100 million-a-year initiative in 2008 into a R302 million-a-year initiative in 2012. The 62 new chairs bring the total number of chairs awarded to institutions to 152.

The department also set up a project team to win the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, and built seven dishes of the KAT-7 (MeerKAT precursor) by January 2010. The completed KAT-7 provided information that led to the redesign of MeerKAT from 80 centre-fed dishes to 64 offset dishes, based on the final SKA design.

To take this further, the department says it is now establishing six new centres of excellence, devoting R734 million over the MTEF to the equipment programme and national facilities, extending the life-span of the Astronomy Desk for up to three years, and spending an extra R110 million in the 2012 MTEF on the internship programme.

Satellite lessons

In terms of space science, since May 2009 the department has launched SumbandilaSat, the micro-earth observation satellite and SANSA.

It is now developing a plan for the construction of two micro-satellites in the next 10 years, using lessons learnt from SumbandilaSat.

There will also be a third satellite as part of the African constellation of micro-satellites with three partner countries, Algeria, Nigeria and Kenya.

“I am pleased that in this MTEF, [National] Treasury has provided over R100 million for satellite development. We are working closely with SANSA to develop an implementation blueprint for our next satellite. We are excited at the opportunities created through securing new investments in a satellite development programme,” said the minister.

Africa leader

Pandor is pleased with the work being done by the Academy of Science of SA to increase access to journals online and the visibility of South African research.

“The implementation of SciELO (Scientific Electronic Online) SA open access platform has provided free access to SA scholarly journals; 22 journals are on the platform and there are plans to grow to 180 SA journals. Statistics show that the site is visited over 1 000 times a day, with over half the visits coming from outside Africa. The South African Journal of Science has had nearly 130 000 articles downloaded since May 2009.”

The minister adds that two of the areas in which she believes SA will achieve world-class success are the astronomy sciences and ICT.

“Our research capacity in this area is becoming a strong competitive advantage. Over the last 18 months, we have announced targeted partnerships with global ICT companies including SAP, Microsoft, and Nokia. These companies have invested over R15 million in kind and cash in our ICT research and development programme in 2011/12. This was matched by DST funds.”

In this financial year, the DST will provide more funding to leverage increased direct international support for ICT research and innovation. “We hope to announce a partnership with IBM and one other multinational firm later this year.”

The department's investments in astronomy have elevated the importance of science and technology in SA and Africa, according to the minister. It has allowed SA to play an important leadership role in promoting science in Africa.

“We remain committed to building an African VLBI [Very Long Baseline Interferometry] that connects us to existing networks. We have approached DIRCO [Department of International Relations and Cooperation] and National Treasury to allow us to access R248 million from the African Renaissance Fund so we can begin our planned creation of the VLBI. We are waiting to hear whether we have been successful.”