Programme Director, Dr Thandi Mgwebi;

Dr Romilla Maharaj, NRF Executive Director;

Representatives from Higher Education, Science Councils, Industry and sister , Government Departments;

British Council representatives

Embassy of France in South Africa

It is a great honour to address thisconference ofstudents, researchers and academics, who have come from all over South Africa to share their experiences.

In the latest issue of the World Competitiveness Index, South Africa is ranked 56th out of 144 countries.  Although this is a drop of three places, there is some good news.  For example, our country's financial markets, corporate management and auditing standards are among the best in the world.  However there is a grim aspect – South Africa's maths and science education is the worst of all 144 countries.

This is indeed disheartening.  Success in our efforts to develop science, engineering and technology human resources that are representative of South Africa's demographics depends largely on having sufficient numbers of school leavers with passes in mathematics and science.  Mathematics is, after all, the spinal cord of science, engineering and technology development, and therefore critical to South Africa's national system of innovation, and to our future as a competitive, knowledge-based economy.

We are aware that we have to encourage more learners to choose mathematics and science as subjects when they enter grade 10, and then attract the best performers to science-based careers.  However, earlier this year, the Department of Basic Education reported a decline of 17% in the number of grade 12 learners who wrote mathematics and physical science between 2009 and 2013.  This means that the already small pool from which our future scientists and researchers will come is drying up.

The Department of Science and Technology is investing heavily in programmes that seek to popularise science and encourage our youth to take an interest in the sciences.  Almost every aspect of our lives today is touched by science, from the quality of the air that we breathe, to the water that we drink and the food that we eat.  Constructing an informal shack involves science, and most of us are unable to get through a day's business without using a cellphone or computer.

Our Government and the DST in particular has invested billions of rands in programmes that seek to increase the number of women and people from previously disadvantaged communities entering and remaining in the sciences.  It is also why programmes like the South African PhD Project are invaluable.  Researchers and academics build the skills and human resources we need to maintain our country's infrastructure and health services, as well as producing knowledge that innovators and techno-entrepreneurs can use to develop economically viable goods and services.

The National Development Plan requires South Africa to produce 100 doctoral graduates per million of the population by 2030, which translates to over 5 000 PhDs per year from a base of 1 420 in 2010.  I believe the South African PhD Project, together with programmes like the South African Research Chairs Initiative and the Centres of Excellence Programme (amongst others), will go a long way in positioning us to meet this ambitious target.

As a Department, we have adopted and embraced the globally accepted notion of a PhD as a driver of innovation and global competitiveness, given the skills set that a PhD requires.  We also know that higher qualifications lead to higher income levels, and local and international studies show that this correlation is more pronounced at master's and doctoral levels.

So it is reassuring to note that, since the inaugural SA PhD Project conference in 2008, there has been huge increase in uptake.  This tells me that our young people have an appetite for the pursuit of knowledge and that this initiative is going to make a significant contribution to the development of our country.

The high-level skills our country needs for growth will come from individuals like the students participating in this programme, who have demonstrated that they are serious about learning.  With almost a third of our entire budget of over R6 billion spent on human capital development, the DST is the single biggest source of public support for postgraduate studies and the development of the next generation of researchers.  We currently spend about R400m per annum on postgraduate bursaries, and we will be doubling this from 2015.

We look to researchers and students to help us find solutions to some of our country's most pressing challenges. It is people like you who will, we hope, eventually develop a vaccine for HIV.  And it is social scientists, as some of you are, who have done so much to help us understand the social challenges associated with the HIV/Aids epidemic.

I would like to encourage the students privileged to be participating in this programme to use the next two days to engage meaningfully with one another and the academics and researchers in their fields. 

I would also like to acknowledge the mentors and supervisors who are with us today, without whom it would be impossible to implement this project.  We are grateful for your commitment to make this country a better place.

We are thankful to our international partners who have invested resources into our human capital programmes. Your support is invaluable.

Last, but not least I would like to thank the NRF for the leadership they have provided in taking this programme to where it is today.

Thank you.