Leave research funds alone or SA will fall behind, warns minister

Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane Picture: Lindile Mbontsi
Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane Picture: Lindile Mbontsi

Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has warned against government departments redirecting funds budgeted for research and innovation, saying the move could see South Africa lagging further behind its global peers.

Kubayi-Ngubane told City Press in an interview that her proposal was that such funds should be ring-fenced so that they are not available for anything else.

“One of the things we have learnt over time is that when there is allocation of money for a certain department, when you have tough times like this when the economy is not doing well, naturally departments put research and technology to the side.

“They redirect the money dedicated to it and use it for something else and that is very dangerous because then you have an impact on the future. You resolve the current problem, but create a crisis in the future.”

She added: “So we are proposing ring-fencing of the money. Ideally we would want institutions such as the Agricultural Research Council to be under the portfolio of science and technology. But we [are] saying because it is a long-term view for now we don’t want to be changing too many things, let us just ring-fence the money.

“If transport has money for research and technology, ring-fence it so that it doesn’t go anywhere else. If the department of energy has money for research and development, ring-fence it. We want to insist that all departments must budget for it.”

Last Monday saw the release of the science and technology departments’ white paper, which has now been distributed for consultation. The paper speaks to an urgent need for integration and digitisation across government departments, as well as bridging the gap between government, business and civil society.

Ministries that have long since been threatening to go digital include home affairs and the police, but a full roll-out across these and other departments is yet to materialise.

Kubayi-Ngubane this week denied that the white paper would be yet another document produced only for talk shops.

Admitting that she was in the awkward position of having to play somewhat of a big brother to other departments who were not speeding up the modernisation process, the former minister of energy and communications said she did not want to be perceived as being a “super minister,” but was not too concerned as her colleagues in Cabinet have up until now proved to be enthusiastic.

She also said the ultimate task of monitoring and evaluation would be placed at the foot of the presidency.

The ring-fencing of funds in various departments is just one of the mechanisms the department is planning to employ to prevent South Africa lagging further behind on the world stage.

“We have also spoken about the issue of development funds. We are looking at joint development funds, for example between countries. One of the critical areas is to increase spending on research and development. We are currently at 0.7%, we want to go to 1.5%.

“If we want to compete we have to up that. You look at countries like China that are sitting at 2.5% spending on research and development, which is why they are where they are at. That is why the economy is growing so rapidly, they are investing. We are really far behind the rest of the world in terms of spending, I must say.”

Kubayi-Ngubane said her two major headaches since taking over the ministry have been assisting people with good ideas to enter the market and Treasury’s procurement process.

“One of the engagements we have now with National Treasury is the issue of procurement for departments, which is a major headache for me. You have the CSIR, for example, finding a solution for sanitation, a technology you can use in deep rural areas that does not need water for toilets. It is safe, you don’t have children falling into pit latrines.

“But the departments of either basic education or water and sanitation can’t take this technology because National Treasury says they need to go into a tender and bid. But this is what government has gone to research. The CSIR is a government entity, they have researched using government money to find the solution.

“They can’t take that solution to be implemented, those are the things we are battling with. With the process of the white paper and synchronising the work, we will be able to resolve this. Our research is solving problems that can help improve service delivery from a government point of view.”

Not shying away from the discussion of job losses, which in recent weeks has seen Public Services and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo go through a baptism of fire, Kubayi-Ngubane said that the losses were a reality that government would have to mitigate as it modernises.

“Remember we are not intensive labour driven as the department, and maybe that is why sometimes we have a blind eye towards labour because our focus is on the research and innovation.

“We have done that analysis to look at the future of jobs and what can we recommend and we will do that at the economic cluster of Cabinet. I always say to people: ‘Let us not be scared of technology.’ Think about how we have advanced. The future can’t be bleak because we want to resist what development brings. What is important is to find balance, bringing technology with the responsibility of retraining.”

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