The bridgemaster

February 24, 1995

Karen Mac Gregor talks to Ben Ngubane, the new minister of science and technology, on how First World research must work for Third World conditions. A black man drags himself along a bustling street in central Johannesburg, going who knows where but making remarkable progress for a person with no legs. A wheelchair would transform his life. Not far away, tucked between hills at Pelindaba, South African scientists secretly built a nuclear bomb.

In Durban, a scientific team lead by Max Michaelis earned international acclaim in 1991 for inventing the gas telescope, and then again two years later for their work on the colliding shock lens. The lens will advance industrial robotics, but not the lives of shack dwellers down the road who do not even have toilets.

In South Africa, the contrast between the First and Third World hits you all the time. The new government's greatest challenge is to uplift the poor without dragging down the impressive base of First World research, expertise and infrastructure which is the country's best hope of success. To build wheelchairs as well as colliding shock lenses.

Ben Ngubane, a medical doctor and district surgeon who became South Africa's first minister of arts, culture, science and technology last May, is charged with that task. He gets around R1 billion of the nearly R3 billion (Pounds 350 million) that is spent on research and development in South Africa each year.

In 1991, for the first time, total expenditure on research and development exceeded 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, a percentage which still lags far behind those of industrialised nations but in a cash-strapped country represents a sizeable chunk of the budget.

The ministry, as all others, is under huge pressure to formulate and implement policies that address the twin national goals of growing South Africa's economy and uplifting its society. It has the added burden of setting up a department from scratch.

At the end of January, Dr Ngubane met with leading academics, industrialists and others involved in science and technology to discuss setting up a statutory body to advise his and other ministeries.

The National Advisory Council on Science and Technology will comprise a wide range of experts and S&T representatives. It will act as an official line of communication between S&T stakeholders and the ministry and, after consultation, it will draw up a White Paper which crystalises priorities and new policies.

The ministry will also initiate a "foresight study" of the science and technology system, said Dr Ngubane. It will be a comprehensive audit of what goes on in the sector, what is good and what is not, and what is important to the country.

"Science and technology in South Africa must be viewed against that in developed countries. We must use their methodologies so that what we produce is qualitatively of international standard. We must have strong international connections," he said.

"There is a lot of work that has been done which is of particular relevance to the Reconstruction and Development Programme. We must mobilise that information so that it is available to help implement the RDP. Until now science and technology has been a fragmented effort with no central coordination."

The ministry's role is to coordinate research in different places to help ensure it fits national priorities. A special cabinet committee has been created. "That is where we will be setting priorities in all sectors. We will have a highly orchestrated science and technology effort for the first time," said Mr Ngubane.

More difficult will be tackling the structural problems of South Africa's science and technology system, which has an advanced infrastructure with several high-quality science councils but is limited in scope and lacks qualified personnel.

As always in South Africa, there is the question of legitimacy. Most research and development - 47 per cent of which is performed by the business sector, per cent by the government and 25 per cent by tertiary institutions - is done by whites. Equally seriously, it does not enjoy public support, especially regarding the amount of money spent.

Dr Ngubane intends tackling the first problem - the need for more, and especially, black, researchers - by directing more funds towards historically black universities, which are currently incapable of producing enough highly qualified people but are where most black students are trained.

"We need to give very urgent attention to improving the output from these universities if we are to generate enough managers and supervisers for the RDP and for industry. I have no doubt that the primary focus for further research development should be at historically black universities.

"We need to improve the size and variety of research grants. We need to look at how we support institutions that provide research experience, and how we move students and teachers between research councils, universities and technikons, and industry. There must be very close interaction between higher education and our industrial base."

The country should create new opportunities for postgraduate training through funding and provision of equipment, he added, and entice people to work in research environments through internships and other incentives. In the longer term, the aim is to improve the quality of science teaching in schools, especially black schools.

The second problem - lack of public support - exists because the role of science and technology is not understood by most people and is not impacting positively on their lives.

"There has not been an awareness created in the population of the importance of science and technology in everyday life. Science is not reaching out to the public," Dr Ngubane said. "It has not been integrated into communities by creating a culture among the young, or by facilitating access to computers and equipment in schools.

"I am interested in the way in which countries I have visited relate S&T to people through advanced interactive museums and publications that are accessible to the lay person, and the way in which whole information systems are geared to reach people."

He wants to promote innovation centres, travelling exhibitions, lectures, vocational training, and incentive schemes that help young people set up science-based businesses.

Forty-three per cent of research and development is applied, 36 per cent is experimental and 21 per cent is basic, according to the Foundation for Research Development. The tertiary sector performed 66 per cent of basic research, while business 67 per cent of experimental development.

Applied research, generally conducted in the eight science councils, is the most important activity in the government sector. Dr Ngubane believes the councils should direct more of their research towards activities which are directly relevant to the country.

There were too few recommendations coming from the councils on, for example, fulfilling the country's massive construction requirements, products for the disabled and the elderly, and ways of combatting crime.

"I feel that South African research has a duty to allocate priority to fields which deal with the public domain. We want a whole new policy direction. The government must plan in terms of needs and areas of global competition for our products, social services, public service decision making structures, managers, technologies and technicians, " he said.

Basic research would not be neglected. Universities strongly believe that they should be conducting a larger proportion of the country's R&D effort, not only because it is cost effective but also because they provide the interface for basic and applied.

"Basic research projects should be just as well funded as strategic and applied research," Dr Ngubane said. "But the science councils are conducting most of our strategic and applied research for industrial processes, new products and key technologies. I think we must find a balance."

Then there is the issue of money. South Africa clearly needs to spend more on research and development if it is to find lucrative niches in the global markets it is beginning to enter. According to the World Competitiveness Report 1993, the country fell from fifth to seventh place in 1992 among 15 newly industrialised countries surveyed in terms of scientific and technological capacity.

More money will not be forthcoming. "We have tried very hard to argue for more money for S&T. But there are real limits on what we can get because the budget is very circumscribed. This has been made very, very clear," said Dr Ngubane.

"But I think we can do a lot more with the chunk of money we get if we all agree to redirect spending to crucial areas. We hope, of course, that as the economy picks up we will get a better budget. We also hope that joint ventures with countries such as Britain will open up important avenues for funding and participation by our researchers."

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