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TWAS Newsletter
The Academy's quarterly magazine. Download PDF files of individual…

Minister Pandor on science

Minister Pandor on science

Naledi Pandor was appointed minister of science and technology of South Africa by president Jacob Zuma in May 2009. She has been a member of South Africa's parliament since 1994 and has previously served as minister of education.

Minister Pandor on scienceNaledi Pandor was educated in Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland, the UK and the USA. She earned an MA in education from the University of London and an MA in general linguistics from the University of Stellenbosch. She also holds diplomas in higher education from Bryn Mawr College and in leadership in development from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA. Minister Pandor has lectured widely and chaired a number of committees, trusts and funds, including the National Council of Provinces, the Desmond Tutu Education Trust and the Tertiary Fund of South Africa.

In July, Minister Pandor conducted an email interview with the editor of the TWAS Newsletter. An edited text of the interview follows. 

What are the major challenges facing South Africa today in its efforts to advance science and technology?

The major challenges we face are to make sure that our scientists contribute to improving the lives of the poor, boosting the economy and expanding knowledge.

For the past five years the Department of Science and Technology has provided broad-based support for research in a variety of disciplines, including astronomy, space science and technology, biotechnology and climate-change science. The department has also served as a nucleus for activities in technology development, transfer and commercialization.

Over the next five years we plan to make improved access to health care and education our top priorities. The Department of Science and Technology’s innovation strategy aims to drive South Africa towards a knowledge-based economy, in which the production and dissemination of knowledge leads to economic benefits and enriches all fields of human endeavour.

Research conducted by the World Bank tells us that over the next two decades there will be as many as one billion new jobs worldwide in science, engineering and technology. While the old economy, based on extractive industries and resources, will continue to shed jobs, new jobs will be created in the new economy, based on services and knowledge.

Our major challenge is to ensure that South Africans are best prepared to fill as many of those new jobs as possible.

How has the global financial crisis affected science and technology policies in South Africa?

I think it is recognized at home and abroad (for example, by Fitch credit rating’s recent decision to increase South Africa’s investment grade) that South Africa is better positioned to weather the current economic recession than most other countries, largely owing to our public commitment to large-scale infrastructure development. This commitment has provided a unique opportunity for South Africa to improve its science, technology and innovation infrastructure, and to assist South African companies to progress up the value chain to become globally competitive suppliers.

Nearly 10 years ago, the government set a target to spend 1% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D). We have almost reached that goal, but countries that have successfully built knowledge-driven economies are now spending more – much more – than we are.

As a percentage of GDP, the average annual R&D investment of Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states is more than three times our own. And OECD countries are increasing that investment. For example, this year US President Barak Obama doubled the US investment in basic science, and his administration’s economic stimulus package includes more than USD21 billion in one-off investments in federal R&D.

We have not yet introduced a stimulus package on this scale, but then the credit crunch began to affect us much later than OECD countries.

This is not the time to cut back on South Africa’s investment in the future. It is the time to invest in key sectors where South Africa is well placed to lead.

Our policy is to protect and promote our investment in science, to make it easier for students and entrepreneurs to exploit their patents and form companies, and to provide a regulatory regime in which small and medium enterprises find it beneficial to market their ideas. 

If we build on our recent success in expanding investment in research and development, we will be able to develop new industrial processes that are both locally innovative and internationally competitive. Most local innovation will involve technology upgrading of core processes rather than focusing on basic research that is internationally competitive. That is because most of our enterprises operate far below the technological frontier. Yet both basic and apply research create jobs in industry and manufacturing.

Our future growth (more jobs, greater wealth) lies in increased research and development, accruing new patents and trademarks, developing new technologies for transforming traditional industries, creating new products, and training and developing a keen knowledge of international markets.

Since 2002, the National Research and Development Strategy has been the basis of most of our science and technology activities. With the intention of promoting South Africa’s competitiveness, the strategy identified key technology missions and science platforms. The technology missions include biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information and communication technologies. The science platforms include Antarctic research, marine biology, astronomy and palaeosciences.

In 2007, we adopted an innovation plan that identifies five grand challenges: developing South Africa’s bioeconomy, developing space science and technology, providing energy security, responding adequately to global climate change and increasing our ability to anticipate the complex consequences of change due to human and social dynamics.

South Africa has the continent’s strongest universities and best scientific research institutes. But its primary and secondary school systems remain weak. What measures should be taken to improve the nation’s overall educational system?

Yes, it is certainly true that we have as yet been unable to overcome our historical legacy of disadvantage in regard to the teaching of maths and science in our schools. Yet, we have been improving, as recent systemic surveys and matrix results have shown. As far as the Department of Science and Technology is concerned, our Youth into Science Strategy aims to improve the quality of maths and science learning from the schooling sector through to the university sector.

Our approach is to increase the number of skilled researchers and technologists by way of specific interventions. Our interventions are focused both downstream (on established researchers and technologists) and upstream (on learners in schools).

At the downstream end, there is the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), the Centres of Excellence (CoE) Programme and the Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme. At the upstream end, there are Bursary Initiatives, Youth into Science and the Science and Engineering and Technology (SET) Awareness programmes.

What is the state of the relationship of South Africa’s scientific community with other scientific communities on the continent?

We chair the Southern African Development Community (SADC) S&T group, which recently drafted a 10-year plan for the SADC. We also support the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) flagship projects, specifically the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), the African Laser Centre and the Southern African Network for Biosciences (SANBio). South Africa also participates in the NEPAD/Southern African Regional Universities Association roundtable discussions on the implementation of the consolidated plan of action and engineering capacity-building for manufacturing.

South Africa has made great strides both in creating a strong foundation for economic growth and building world-class research communities in several fields. Yet poverty remains a serious problem. What can be done to help ensure that scientific expertise plays a key role in combatting poverty?

In general, we know that science creates wealth and jobs. We do not want to remain consumers of science and technology from other countries. We have to invest in science for ourselves.

At a less abstract level, science plays a critical role in the lives of ordinary people. Take energy. We need energy for industry, cars and trains. Yet ordinary people meet their energy needs by using paraffin, wood and liquid petroleum gas. Women in rural areas spend a lot of time fetching firewood, and in informal settlements people struggle just to get paraffin or coal, most of which emits poisonous gases that can create serious health problems. How many people are being treated in hospitals for breathing problems or burns from paraffin stoves that topple over or explode?

Science can help us find ways to produce cleaner, renewable energy that ordinary people can use in their homes.

Nuclear energy is an attractive option, with regard to cost, cleanliness and safety, and we have invested heavily in it. The point is that in energy research and development, as in all other areas of science and technology, we need to make advances that help people lead healthier and more productive lives.