Summit unpacks SA sci-tech white paper

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Science and technology minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.
Science and technology minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) convened its first summit on the new draft White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation on Friday.

Hosted by minister of science and technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, the summit is the culmination of a process of public comment on the draft policy document.

Cabinet approved the publication of the draft white paper for public comment in September, and the department has received inputs from a variety of stakeholders. Friday's event saw the participation of business, labour, academia and other stakeholders.

There was overall consensus that science, technology and innovation are at the heart of development, and that investment in this sphere is critical to ensuring long-term growth.

The new policy will replace the 1996 white paper on science and technology, which was adopted over two decades ago. The new draft white paper is aimed at preparing the country for the future and involving various sectors of society.

Since the implementation of the 1996 document, there have been major global shifts, says the department, adding that the advent of the fourth industrial revolution has seen the rapid development of new technologies and the growth of new industries.

The new draft white paper addresses these new developments and also builds on existing programmes.

Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of science and technology, said when SA developed the 1996 white paper, the National Development Plan (NDP) had not been in place. While good progress has been made in the implementation of the first document's proposals, the potential of science, technology and innovation in advancing the objectives of the NDP had not yet been fully realised, he noted.

The NDP recognises that for SA to achieve its goals for 2030, science, technology and innovation must be at the centre of the developmental agenda.

The European Commission's director-general of energy, Dr Dominique Ristori, said the most competitive countries in the world today are the ones that have invested in science, technology and innovation. He said investment in research and innovation is a defining feature of leading economies and companies.

Ristori added that the world is facing enormous challenges, and science, technology and innovation are needed to tackle them. He said an environment conducive to research is essential, and the scientific endeavour should involve all sectors of society.

In her address, Kubayi-Ngubane said the new white paper is aimed at helping SA to benefit from global developments such as rapid technological advancement, and geopolitical and demographic shifts, as well as responding to the threats associated with some of these global trends.

"Of all the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence is poised to have the most disruptive impact on the place of humans in economic production," said Kubayi-Ngubane, challenging her audience on the approach SA should take to maximise the benefits of this technology for the people.

The minister said some research predicted the technological advancement of the fourth industrial revolution would lead to improved productivity, but this might reduce employment.

However, she noted, there is also the possibility the introduction of new technologies would not eliminate jobs, but rather redefine them.

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