12 September 2019

Programme Director: Dr Gillian Arendse

Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Mr Buti Manamela;

Former Ministers of Science and Technology, Dr Ben Ngubane, Mr Mosibudi Mangena and Mr Derek Hanekom;

Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology, Mr Philly Mapulane;

Former Portfolio Committee Chairperson Advocate Lindiwe Maseko;

Chairperson of the NRF Board, Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh, and all Board members present;

Director General of the Department of Science and Innovation, Dr Phil Mjwara;

CEO of the NRF, Dr Molapo Qhobela;

Former CEOs of NRF, Dr Khotso Mokhele, and Dr Albert Van Jaarsveld;

Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences at UNESCO, Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle;

DDG’s present;

University and Science Councils representatives;

Researchers;

Members of the media;

Ladies and Gentlemen

 

It is my privilege and honour to address you at this auspicious occasion marking the 2019 Annual National Research Foundation (NRF) Awards.

 

Let me also take this opportunity to congratulate all the awards recipients tonight. I thank you for your hard work, your dedication and for making us proud this evening. You indeed deserve all the accolades and recognition.

 

Let me also congratulate the NRF on its 20th anniversary of supporting and catalyzing research work in our country. This 20th anniversary coincides with 25th anniversary of our democracy, thus requiring serious reflection on both achievements made, as well as the challenges that lie ahead. For example, I am still deeply concerned about the demographics of our researchers, as well the continued reproduction of inequalities in research outputs and innovation between historically advantaged and disadvantaged institutions. Coincidentally, this also reflects the urban and rural divide in South Africa’s higher education educational landscape.

 

The National Research Foundation’s (NRF’s) mandate is to contribute to national development by supporting, promoting and advancing research and human capacity development through funding and the provision of the necessary research infrastructure.

 

This is done in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science, technology and innovation including humanities, social sciences and indigenous knowledge. Such knowledge creation must also be anchored around our priority developmental objectives.

 

It is for this reason that the NRF plays an integration role across the science and technology system and has the ability to catalyse focused societally beneficial research and development in support of knowledge generation, human capacity development, innovation       and overarching developmental objectives of our country.

 

Our Awards this evening celebrate leading researchers in their respective fields based on peer evaluation and according to international best practice.

 

The work of these celebrated researchers was assessed for, amongst others, by their contribution to the field of study focused on quality and impact.

 

As we celebrate the 20th Year of advancing knowledge, transforming lives and inspiring a nation, our 2019 NRF Awards continues to be of added significance in our country’s human resources in the research and academic community.

 

These awards are also aimed at inspiring and encouraging the continued culture of advancing South Africa’s knowledge economy and technological innovativeness by rewarding those that make use of research for the advancement and betterment of humanity in general and our country in particular.

 

The awards also recognise and celebrate the efforts of outstanding women and men who, through their work, advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation.

 

These are men and women whose work will help us transform South Africa into a knowledge intensive society where all sections of South African society shall derive equitable benefit from the advances in science, technology and innovation.

 

These individuals are indeed phenomenal, a hope to the nation, and that will enable the NRF’s to achieve its commitment to advance Science for Societal Benefit.

 

These Awards remains credible as they are evaluated through the world respected benchmark based on peer review rating system.

 

I also would like to indicate that as a Department, through the NRF, we supported 4 633 researchers who produced a combined total of 9 159 internationally peer-reviewed research articles this past financial year.

 

Programme Director

 

We are gathered there at a time when both our country and the SADC region are faced with stubborn structural features of our economy, characterized by high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty. It is a South Africa and SADC region in both economic and social distress.

 

The current high levels of violence and gender-based violence we are witnessing within our impoverished communities are generated by these socio-economic conditions.

The NRF and our research communities therefore have a responsibility to understand the political economy of South Africa against the backdrop of the political economy of the SADC region if we are to lay a foundation for medium to long term challenges facing our country.

 

At the same time we are all confronted with the question on how to harness the potential of the latest technological advances under the rubric of the 4th Industrial Revolution in pursuit of our economic growth and development.  And importantly, how to ensure that as we take this quantum leap into the future, we do not leave our society’s most marginalised behind.

 

It is also important to approach these new developments soberly, bearing in mind that much as the first three revolutions saw massive and significant advances in technology and thus prospects for eliminating hunger and poverty in humanity, these advances were accompanied by deepening inequalities, poverty and hunger.

 

Much as we cannot narrowly blame technology for such human social regression, what matters though is in whose hands and for whose service are such technological advances. We cannot afford to be romantic about the 4th industrial revolution, but to pose the question of how do we ensure that such a revolution benefits humanity as a whole rather than deepening human misery.


By now, we know that disruptive trends and technologies are changing the way we live, the way we work and do business, and the way we govern.

 

We therefore must respond with agility to craft a roadmap for navigating this new environment for the benefits of humanity as a whole.

 
We must ensure that our citizens are prepared, and are active participants and drivers of change, and direct such towards technology contributing towards creation of a more egalitarian society. I might as well ask as to what kind of epeistemology is called upon given both existing realities and the new possibilities.

 

I believe that we can create this favourable environment, through encouraging research and innovation in both formal and informal education platforms, and investing in innovation wherever there is human endeavor and activity, in big or small companies, including co-operatives, in our universities, in our communities and support grassroots research and innovation. This by no means suggest we must abandon investment into cutting edge and high-quality research.

 

We therefore need to make science and innovation our daily preoccupation and by ensuring that we rally all of South African society, particularly women and the youth to form part of our research and development and the 41R motive forces.

 

I therefore want to continue to urge you to continue to take advantage of the opportunities presented by government and all its agencies, including the NRF, to develop new researched based solutions in line with the dictates of the 4IR and its technological changes to create a better South Africa and a better world.

 

As we may know, we are entering into an era in which many things are unknown and bound to change. We can prepare our country’s human resources by finding new solutions and averting or mitigating the negative consequences that might be presented by the 4IR.

 

Amongst other things we have established a Ministerial task team to assess and come up with concrete plans to the implications of the 4IR for university curricula and syllabi. I want to extend this investigation to examine the entire post-school sector.


We need to prepare our young people for jobs that haven’t yet been created and adopt incentive programmes for industries that may experience significant structural disruption in just a few years’ time.


According to McKinsey, up to 375 million workers globally may have to change their occupational categories and acquire new skills by 2030.


Employers will need to make substantial financial commitments to ongoing upskilling and reskilling in response to changing labour market needs. That is why the bringing together under one Ministry the two departments of higher education and science and innovation provides potentially useful opportunities for skills revolution with innovation - in other words bringing about new relations of knowledge production and skill development.

Ladies and gentlemen

 

The signing  into law the National Research Foundation (NRF) Amendment Bill by President Cyril Ramaphosa will ensure that we further expand the mandate of the NRF beyond supporting research through human resource development and the provision of research infrastructure to include science engagement.

 

As a department, we have  adopted the Science Engagement Monitoring and Evaluation Framework, as a guideline for tracking and establishing whether our science engagement programme realise their intended objectives.

 

In our continued endeavour to show our commitment to advance science, technology and innovation as a Department, we have developed a new policy framework for science and technology which is contained in the new White Paper on Science and Technology and Innovation (STI).

 

To realise the objectives of the new White Paper, we will be developing a Decadal Plan on STI, which will serve as an initial ten-year implementation plan over the period 2020-2030.

 

The decadal plan will take into consideration not only the White Paper, but also a review of the achievements and challenges from the Ten- Year Innovation Plan (2008-2018), which has seen the attainment of significant milestones within the sector.

 

We are also committed to broaden the participation and mainstream gender, youth, and people living with disabilities in the science, technology and innovation landscape.

 

I however wish to point out that I am going to give added focus on HDIs, as well as extending support for innovation into the TVET College sector.

 

We have further introduced the concept of a National System of Innovation (NSI), which is our approach in managing our Science, Technology and Innovation. 

 

We therefore commit to work closer with all of you, our Universities, Research Councils, the Private sector and multilateral institutions, to develop our local research capacity in targeted areas, amongst others, big data analytics, robotics, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Computing and Addictive manufacturing, so we create an enabling environment for localisation of these technologies and innovations for the benefit of our country and its people.

 

As a department, we further approved the Human Capital Development Strategy for Research, Innovation and Scholarships and we continue to financially resource its implementation.

 

Together with all our public entities, we continue to provide funding to support postgraduate research students through the National Research Fund (NRF) and the National Skills Fund (NSF) managed bursary fund. These includes bursaries for undergraduate studies through National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

 

In fact I challenge you to conceptualists anew the opportunities created by the establishment of the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

 

For the past five years, we also have been funding the Data Science for Impact and Decision Enhancement (DSIDE) programme. This is an intensive training programme that aims to solve real-life problems using multiple technical disciplines, including computer science, analytics, mathematics, modelling and statistics. 

 

Furthermore, we are also in support of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (CAIR) programme in order to harness technological convergence and drive the advancement of the South African economy in response to the 4IR. 

 

I also wish to point out that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has asked us to establish and host its first 4IR centre on the African continent.

 

This gives us a further platform for taking our R & D and innovation to higher levels. I invite you to come closer to this initiative. Our White Paper on STI also commits to the establishment of a Sovereign Innovation Fund which will act as an important catalyst for research and innovation. Please come closer to this as well.

 

Under the Thuthuka programme, we supported 1 135 emerging researchers with grants in 2017/18 financial year, 83% of the grant recipients were black and 63% were women.

 

Through the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), we will convert all the research ideas into marketable products and services.

 

I was at the UKZN graduation this morning, and looking at all the MA and PhD dissertation and thesis I was wondering whether our country, in particular my departments, our universities and science councils do have a strategy to harness or harvest the many insights, new thinking and creative proposals from this university research.

 

We will also upscale our grassroots innovation work following our pilot phase that showed how best to design and deliver support to grassroots innovators.

 

As Professor Wim de Villiers said in his opinion piece titled “Big data a game-changer for universities”, published on the 25 Jul 2019, in the Mail and Guardian Newspaper:

 

“Now, it has been said that it is easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course. But the world is changing fast, and universities have to adapt”.

 

Our Universities should therefore prioritise transdisciplinary research between the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects with humanities critical for navigating the 4IR. It is simply not true that 4IR will rely only on STEM sciences and displace humanities. In fact, 4IR raises big ethical questions as well as enormous implications for individuals, families, communities and humanity as a whole.

 

This is manifested by the STEAM movement (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) at universities globally having to match the growing demand for arts and humanities skills in STEM fields with the advent of disruptive technologies such as 3D printing and robotics.

 

Based on this, Professor Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University in Boston, US, in his 2017 book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence lays out the framework for a new discipline and research field – humanics – which prepares students to operate and compete in a labour market in which smart machines work alongside human professionals.

 

He identifies the following three graduate literacies as vital for navigating the 4IR: data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy.

 

Students require data literacy to make sense of big data and information flowing from devices; technological literacy to know how their machines work and navigate disruptive technologies; and human literacy explored through the humanities as to how to function optimally as human beings.

 

With the automation of work, Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts have observed that it is that which makes us human – our emotional intelligence and creativity – that is in demand in the transition to automation.

 

Our South African universities must therefore join universities worldwide in establishing 4IR-focused institutes and campuses with inter- and transdisciplinary academic and research programmes.

 

With my recent visit to Japan attending the Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD VII) at Yokohama, amongst other deliberations I had, was to express our appreciation to Japan for their continued support for the South Africa- Japan University Forum (SAJU) - collaboration between South African and Japanese universities.

 

But more critically we agreed that through SAJU, we should include and strengthen the South African Historically Disadvantaged (HDIs) Universities in order to strengthen their research capacities.

 

We have further encouraged the Japanese government to join the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Global Radio Telescope Observatory as a full member as they have significant technological competencies to contribute to the SKA and the project could also be a vehicle for enhanced Africa-Japan cooperation in technology intensive sectors such as big data.

 

Through this TICAD, South Africa is positioned to establish the first Science, Technology and Innovation University in partnership with Japan.

 

In conclusion

 

The main driver of the 4IR lies in the fusion of knowledge for economic advancement and, equally, social justice.

 

Research expertise from a range of disciplines is required to co-create new understandings and breakthroughs to transform society for the better.

 

The foundation of this is in a university community that is sustainable, well resourced, at the leading edge of research and future-oriented.

 

Put differently the NRF is going to become even more relevant in our country and has an even bigger role to play in the evolving technological advances that are taking place side by side with poverty and inequality.

 

Congratulations once more to all of you who receiving awards this evening.

 

I take this wonderful opportunity to thank the NRF’s Board, the Management, participating Universities, supervisors and, most importantly, the Award recipients for your hard work in taking these awards to greater heights and making this occasion a huge success.

 

Thank You!