The Square Kilometre Array has put the department on the government`s radar and focused money and attention on the science and technology space.
Most of the department`s relatively small budget, which increased to R6.2-billion in 2013-2014 from R4.4-billion in 2012-2013, goes towards research in South Africa`s universities, through the National Research Foundation. Notably, the research initiative is producing outstanding results. Research output is up and more postgraduate bursaries are available to grow skills.
There is a push to pilot new technologies in some of South Africa`s most disadvantaged areas, such as the Cofimvaba school project in the Eastern Cape in which tablets, wireless and energy solutions are being tested. This is one example of many.
Derek Hanekom succeeded Naledi Pandor as minister in 2012 and the transition has appeared seamless. The department under his guidance has completed many of the projects that she started. Of particular interest is the ministerial review of the science, technology and innovation landscape. Some of the recommendations, such as the reform of the Technology Innovation Agency, are already being instituted.
Complementing its tangible achievements is the widespread view that the department, its minister and officials are accessible. The Democratic Alliance`s spokesperson on science and technology, Junita Kloppers-Lourens, describes them as “relaxed, open and approachable”.
The department, which spent 99.5% of its budget this financial year, definitely punches above its weight in terms of output and achievements, but it is on a negative ratings watch.
As the elections draw nearer, the Mail & Guardian has noted the tendency, figuratively speaking, to fly the ANC flag high at science events, putting politics before science triumphs. Part of the strength of the science space in South Africa is that it has been distinctly apolitical. Politicising science achievements in the country could unravel all the good work that has been achieved.