Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. Picture: NTSWE MOKOENA
Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. Picture: NTSWE MOKOENA

On Wednesday, Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane defended the government’s decision to allocate a large slice of the science vote to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), saying it was an investment that would bolster SA’s international competitiveness and boost economic development.

The SKA will be the world’s most sensitive radio telescope, capable of detecting very faint radio signals emitted after the big bang. It is an international project that will ultimately have thousands of dishes in Africa, with their core in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

There will also be more than one-million antenna in Australia. The Treasury has set aside R2.2bn for the SKA in the medium-term expenditure framework, making it the biggest single science project supported by the government. The total science vote over the period is R24.7bn

"We operate in a global community and have to look at global competitiveness. We need to see it as a worthwhile investment, and something we should pride ourselves on," Kubayi-Ngubane said ahead of her budget speech to Parliament on Wednesday.

Her comments come at a time when universities are wrestling with the effect of declining state funding for researchers and a change to the way the National Research Fund (NRF) structures its grants, which began in 2018.

The NRF announced in 2017 that it was slashing funding for top researchers, in response to a steady decline in the budget it had available for research grants. Its decision was met with dismay by universities, who warned that the changes threatened the research system and its capacity to train the next generation of scientists.

The minister said that she was concerned about the budget allocated to the Department of Science and Technology, and officials were in discussion with the Treasury to appeal for more funds. "We are not happy with the level where we are. We understand the constraints the country is facing; indeed, we are concerned," she said.

The department’s director-general, Phil Mjwara, said discussions were under way with the Treasury to consider a longer-term budgeting process than the three-year medium-term expenditure framework.

Work was also under way to model the financial implications of providing further government support to students who qualified for free higher education, as announced by former president Jacob Zuma in 2017, he said.

The new policy provides for free tertiary education at undergraduate level, but makes no provision for postgraduate studies. The key impediment to black students pursuing postgraduate research was lack of money, he said.