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Broadband for universities by year-end

By the end of December, every major campus of every university will have top-class broadband connectivity to the South African National Research Network (Sanren), said science and technology minister Naledi Pandor.

Delivering her budget vote speech yesterday, Pandor explained that a student in Thohoyandou will have the same connectivity as one in Rondebosch.

“The connection of all the University of SA (Unisa) learning sites will also assist the university to offer better tuition support to its students though e-education. The potential impact is significant as over 30% of all students registered for university studies are at Unisa.”

More than R200 million will be spent on expanding access to Sanren in this financial year to ensure all universities are connected by December.

Banking on research

For 2011, the department has allocated R2.5 billion to research and development in science and technology.

The department said yesterday that a total of R4.4 billion has been allocated to research and development in general, with about 58% set aside for the seven public entities reporting to the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Allocations include R433 million for the Technology Innovation Agency, R1.089 billion for the National Research Foundation, R687 million for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), R206 million for the Human Sciences Research Council, R93 million for the South African National Space Agency (Sansa), R32 million for the Africa Institute of SA, and R11 million for the Academy of Science of SA.

Retaining excellence

In addition, 62 new research chairs have been proposed for universities. ”The South African Research Chairs Initiative is a flagship initiative designed to attract and retain excellence in research and innovation at South African universities,” explained Pandor.

She added that currently the DST invests R200 million a year supporting 92 research chairs. “The research conducted includes basic and fundamental research in all fields of science, as well as applied sciences fields, technology development and innovation.

“The expansion of the initiative means that we will have a total of 154 research chairs by 2014, making this a R428 million-a-year initiative,” said Pandor.

The total investment in research chairs will be R914 million by 2013.

Tech increase

However, the minister said funding of science and technology must be improved if SA is to realise its goal of building a knowledge-based economy.

“One of the areas that must be addressed is increased support for post-graduate study and for senior researchers plus a more stable funding model for all our research-performing institutions.”

She added that the department was allocated R4.1 billion in the adjusted estimates of 2010/2011 and has spent 98% of this, but the biggest hurdle is vacancies, due to the lack of appropriate skills.

“We will give this challenge more attention this year. In this financial year, our allocation is R4.4 billion. An additional 25 postdoctoral fellowships, each worth R180 000 per annum for three years, will be created.”

Pandor said more attention will be given to increasing the number of technologists and technicians. “We are considering a technology-linked internship programme in which small and medium-sized technology firms will provide internships for young people and work with our universities of technology to ensure we address this aspect of training.”

Monumental waste

Democratic Alliance alternative member of the portfolio committee on science and technology Wilmot James says Pandor's responsibilities are with SA's science brains.

He adds that she must support the rapid expansion of academic science, graduate and post-doctoral communities and the construction of state-of-the-art laboratories.

“A mere R60 million is spent on the biologics focus area at the CSIR, a pittance compared to the monumentally wasteful R10 billion spent on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor about which there remain awkward questions.”

Satellite conversion

The minister said a major boost to the Africa Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bid against Australia is the fact that radio astronomy facilities are growing throughout the continent.

“Our scientists and engineers have developed innovative technologies to make use of existing communication dishes for radio astronomy.”

She added that Ghana will soon convert one of its Vodafone communications satellite dishes into a radio astronomy telescope. Both SA and Mauritius propose to launch a low frequency interferometer array.

”We remain convinced that we will emerge victorious when the winning bid is announced in 2012.”

Pandor added that the DST also launched Sansa in 2010. “We have directed Sansa to assist the DST in ensuring the provision of support to Sunspace in our effort to convert it into a viable satellite manufacturing company.”

Pandor said the DST is convinced it has the technological capability to develop a medium-sized satellite industry. “Our plans have not received support this year, but we will continue to argue for and work toward SA developing her own competence in satellite building.”

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