The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology (NCRST), Dr. Eino Mvula, talks to Prime Focus Magazine this month about the commission’s role in the larger national goal of creating capacity in the fields of research, science and technology.

Prime Focus: What is the importance of research, science, technology and innovation to a third world economy like Namibia?

Dr. Mvula
: The role of research science, technology and innovation to national development has been recognised the world over. Modern economics of science grew out of three main issues: the contribution of science to the advance of technology, and hence productivity and growth and the scientific knowledge and issues related to the productivities of scientist demand and compensation. Namibia also recognises the importance of research,  science, technology and innovation, which has led to the adoption of the National Research, Science and Technology Policy already in 1999; which was followed by the enactment of the Research, Science and Technology Act, 2004 (Act no 23 of 2004).  Furthermore, Vision 2030 sets the goal of Namibia becoming “an industrialised country” and changing its status from an upper-middle-income country to a high-income country. The fourth National Development Plan (NDP4) has identified the challenges related to the low level of Research and Development (R&D) as well as Innovation in the following manner: “R&D and innovation – which entail the commercially successful introduction or implementation of a new or improved product or process – are at a fairly low ebb in Namibia”.

Prime Focus: How would you benchmark our research and technological advancement with other countries in the SADC region?

Dr. Mvula
: In the SADC region, member states have adopted the SADC Protocol on Science, Technology and Innovation (2010), which encourages the promotion and development of Science, Technology and Innovation in all member states. The protocol also calls for member states to invest at least 1% of their GDP into Research and Development by 2010. Despite this commitment, most of the member states have not yet attained this level of investments in R&D. This is also reflected in the results of the Global Innovation Framework, which is developed by the Cornel University, ISEAD Business School and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).. With the exception of Mauritius, South Africa and Botswana, which were ranked, 49, 60 and 90, respectively in the 2015 global innovation index out of 141 countries, most of the countries, including Namibia, could only manage to secure a place at 107. This implies that Namibia’s innovation input and output are at low levels compared to the countries mentioned earlier. Hence, there is a need to make concerted efforts to build a robust national system of innovation which is essential to improve the competitiveness of the Namibian economy.

Prime Focus: What are the challenges that Namibia faces in developing or improving science and technology in Namibia?

Dr. Mvula
: It is important to recognise that Namibia faces numerous challenges, which need to be overcome to allow the advancement of Research, Science, Technology and Innovation. These challenges include low investment into Research and Development. The current investments into Research and Development remain way below the NDP4 target. Research as well as Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) activities are fragmented and are not properly alignment to national priorities and this situation has led to poor coordination and allocation of resources. At present, Namibia does not have a centralized information system on STI-related activities such as: STI policy instruments, R&D and innovation indicators; inventory of facilities; laboratories and instruments for research; information about the existing R&D projects performed at the public, private and non-profit sectors.  Addressing these challenges requires total coordination and corporation between various stakeholders with necessary ongoing investments into all components of the innovation system.

Prime Focus: The development of research, science, technology and innovation requires nations to invest sufficient resources. How is Namibia doing in terms investing resources in Research and Development?

Dr. Mvula:
A clear commitment has been demonstrated by the Government of Namibia to support Research, Science, Technology and Innovation (RSTI) as shown under the NDP 4, where a target of 0.3% of GDP spending on R&D has been set. This is in recognition of the importance of RSTI in accelerating socio-economic development.  Although there is no clear data on the level of funding on R&D in Namibia at the moment, the committed 0.3% of GDP is still below the 1% of GDP target set under the SADC Protocol on Science and Technology.

The Research, Science and Technology (RST) Fund, as reflected in the RST Act of 2004, has now been operationalized to support local research and innovations as required in terms of the RST Act. For this Fund to make a meaningful impact, it must be well capitalized through a budgetary appropriation.  The Fund remains small at this stage and we continue to engage government and other key stakeholders to strengthen it. The Fund will support investments in research and innovation that have a demonstrable potential to generate significant and sustainable economic, social and environmental benefits to the nation.

Prime Focus: The NCRST is mandated with the development, coordination and promotion of research, science, technology and innovation in Namibia. How is the NCRST working in ensuring that it fulfils this mandate?

Dr. Mvula:
In the first year of operation, the NCRST has identified some challenges in our national system of innovation that relates to a highly fragmented, scattered research and innovation system without proper coordination, streamlining or proper targeting. The linkage between key actors in knowledge or innovation system such as the one between the research community, public research institutions, universities, industries and users has been minimal and collaboration with other countries or institutions that have the requisite capacity and facilities has not been fully exploited.

To address the aforementioned challenge, the NCRST, along with various stakeholders, has successfully facilitated the development of this National Programme on Research, Science, Technology and Innovation (NPRSTI) for the period 2014/15 and 2016/17. It is designed to set out the national direction on RSTI for Namibia.  This Programme outlines the role of each stakeholder in the science and technology system. As the agency mandated to coordinate the implementation of this programme, we continue to engage the stakeholders responsible for its implementation.  The NPRSTI implementation plan documents the research, science, technology and innovation activities; the costing and allocation of resources; targets, milestones and indicators to measure these targets in collaboration with a cross-section of stakeholders, guided by the mandates and primary responsibilities of their respective Ministries, Offices and Agencies (MOAs), private sector institutions and civil society organizations. This plan provides a summary of research, science, technology and innovation activities in the 15 research priority areas of the NPRSTI and also provides valuable information where much needed assistance can be rendered by the relevant authorities. To ensure the successful implementation of the NPRSTI, a robust Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) system is being developed. The NCRST will use milestones and indicators to measure implementation and performance targets.

Prime Focus: Could you outline some of the successes related to engaging stakeholders to improve research, science, technology and innovation in the country?

Dr. Mvula:
Engaging stakeholders is an ongoing process which the NCRST will continue to pursue in order to strengthen research, science, technology and innovation in the country. Some key stakeholders have already come on board. For example, the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) has partnered with us to provide resources to the RST Fund for the joint funding of planned collaborative efforts, and provided topics of research within the ICT sector that are in line with the objectives of the Fund.  We are also in a partnership with the Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF); where the two institutions agree to co-fund Students’ Post Graduate Education in areas as identified in the NPRSTI.  The funding and awarding criteria for the postgraduate scholarships and research grants will be done jointly.

Prime Focus: How do you deal with the challenge of skills shortage in the research and science fraternity?

Dr. Mvula
: One of the key objectives in the NPRSTI speaks to the need to build human resources capacity and ensuring alignment to support Research, Science, Technology and Innovation development. Without highly qualified human resources, it is unlikely that R&D would lead towards a knowledge-based society. It is therefore necessary to establish a system that would support researchers, while at the same time investing in students who would eventually become future researchers. As tomorrow’s researchers, young people need to be attracted and retained in RSTI by being exposed to entrepreneurship possibilities and skills, to enable them to think strategically and exploit opportunities and knowledge.  Namibia’s long-term capacity to innovate, and the quality of its research, depends on such investments in bringing science, technology and innovation closer to young people. The importance of investing in human capital has been duly recognized within the National Human Resource Development Plan as efforts will be placed on the development of a critical mass of knowledgeable workers. As mentioned earlier, having the NSFAF on board will enable us to develop a joint-programme to fund research fellowships for postgraduate students.
Prime Focus: What efforts are being made to strengthen the teaching and learning of science and technology related subject in primary and secondary schools to improve science and research?

Dr. Mvula:
The NCRST plays an important role in supporting the teaching of science at all levels of the education system with the goal of producing professionals who are able to address the needs of a growing economy.  We are currently running a project on the development of Mathematics and Science Computer-based Learning Centres across the country. This project has been building capacity and upgrading the abilities of senior secondary school learners to enable them to enter tertiary studies with a more advanced level of understanding of Mathematics and Science fields.  The following centres are currently operating: Rundu (Kavango East Region), Katima Mulilo (Zambezi Region) and Keetmanshoop (!Karas Region). Centres in Ongwediva (Oshana Region), Gobabis (Omaheke region), Windhoek (Khomas Region) and Khorixas (Kunene Region) are being equipped so that they can become functional.

There has been a preconceived notion in learners that Mathematics and Science are the hardest subjects in school. This has been the notion over several years and continues being so.  In order to address some of these challenges, the NCRST will continue to devise programmes aimed at promoting science and technology in Namibia.  To this end, various national events are held annually including the National Science, Technology and Innovation Festival. This event is organised with the aim of providing a comprehensive, multi-facetted and interactive programme made up of some national and international keynote addresses, illustrated talks, workshops, short courses, competitions, science demonstrations, displays, exhibitions, sport science events and field trips. These activities are designed to enthral and inspire our budding young scientists and their educators.  The NCRST also hosts the National Science Fair annually in collaboration with the NamPower Foundation. The purpose of the Science Fair is to popularize science and technology among our learners, community and educators.

Prime Focus: Would you highlight some of the major achievement of the NCST since it was operationalised two and half years ago?

Dr. Mvula:

• The NCRST Strategy 2014/15 to 2018/19 together with the National Programme on Research, Science, Technology and Innovation (NPRSTI) for the period 2014/15 and 2016/17 are the cornerstones of science, technology and innovation development in Namibia.  Our success in developing a responsive national system of innovation will depend on how well we address challenges related to an out-dated policy and legal framework, low investment in research and development; the fragmentation of science, technology and innovation (STI) activities; the unavailability of a centralized information system on STI related activities such as research and development (R&D); and innovation indicators, inventory of facilities, laboratories. Our implementation is guided by the five strategic Priorities in the NPRTI

• With regards to establishing an enabling policy and regulatory environment, the NCRST has facilitated the development of the first NPRSTI as well as its implementation Plan for the period 2014/15 and 2016/17.

• With regards to building research capacity, the NCRST has issued five Calls for Research Proposals with strong emphasis on capacity development of future scientists. In addition, a Call for Funding PhD Candidates was also issued. Currently 62 research projects in national research priority areas have been funded and being carried out at various research institutions in Namibia including our institutions of Higher learning. There are about 171 students working on these funded projects who are expected to graduate with Masters or Doctoral degrees.  This would certainly boost Namibia’s research and innovation capacity.

• Another aspect that is vital to the advancement of research and development is collaboration.  The NCRST has entered into strategic partnership with several organisation within Namibia and beyond.  Regional and International organisation that we are partnering with include, among others, the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) of South Africa, and the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI), and the German Research Foundation (DFG).  Within Namibia, we are already partnering with the Namibian Statistics Agency (NSA), with the focus of sharing resources in conducting R&D and Innovation census,  the Communication and Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN), with a focus on innovation for the ICT sector, the Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF), focusing on co-funding postgraduate research studies. We will soon conclude agreements with UNAM and NUST to cover the funding of research projects granted to researchers affiliated to the two institutions.

• Extension of the understanding of the role of science and technology to the general public or specific audiences in Namibia will go together with the dissemination of knowledge and the research results, as well as their impact concerning the national objectives.  With the view of disseminating scientific and technological knowledge, the NCRST successfully hosted the National Research Symposium (NRS) from 23 to 25 Septembers 2015.  The National Research Symposium 2015 was a prestigious event set aside to provide an opportunity for Namibian researchers to present their research findings. About 300 research papers were presented at the Symposium.  In addition, the NCRST has funded a number of conferences hosted by public institutions in Namibia. We also successfully hosted the National Science Technology and Innovation Festival in June 2015, as well as the National Science Fair in October 2015.

• As part of our strategy to promote innovation in the economic and social sectors, the NCRST issued a Call for Research Proposals from Namibian Youth Innovators aged 19 to 35 years. Proposals were invited in two research disciplines, namely; Information Communication Technology and Manufacturing Technologies.   The Call attracted over 73 Youth Innovators and out of the 73 proposals, 28 were applied for the Call.  All proposals were subjected to an evaluation process resulting in the approval of 11 proposals for funding.  We are excited about these innovation projects because we believe that we have the potential to produce new products and new business opportunities that would create much needed employment.

Prime Focus: What are short and long term plans of the NCRST? And how are they expected to contribute to Vision 2030?

Dr. Mvula:
The NCRST is committed to engaging key stakeholders to ensure effective implementation of the NPRSTI, which will in turn, result in the attainment of Vision 2030 goals.  Our focus remains on the key strategic objectives as set out in the NPRSTI. These are; Creating an enabling policy and regulatory environment for research development, building research capacities, disseminating of scientific and technological knowledge; promoting cooperation in research and innovation activities, encouraging dissemination of scientific and technological knowledge and promoting and developing innovation in the economic and social sectors.
I would like to highlight some key initiatives that are underway to meet the above-mentioned strategic objectives:

Enabling policy and regulatory environment

• The First National R&D and Innovation Census Reports;
The National Commission on Research, Science and Technology (NCRST), the Namibia Statistic Agency and the University of Namibia have joined hands to conduct a National Research and Development (R&D) Census, as well as a National Innovation Census during the course of this year to establish core STI Indicators. This process would eventually lead to the regular publication of the National reports on Science, Technology and Innovation with comprehensive statistics/indicators. Science, Technology and Innovation core indicators handle components such as the involvement of active human capital in R&D, time dedicated to R&D activities, and the budget or investment for scientific research activities and the innovation component to effectively inform STI development in the country.

• Implementation of Biosafety Regulatory Framework;
We have finalised regulations to the Biosafety Act, 2006 (Act no 7 of 2006) and submitted them to the Minister in January 2016. The regulations, once gazetted, will establish a robust system of control for experimenting with and cultivating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and also ensures that all GMO-containing food is labelled in a clear manner that indicates that it contains GMOs.  The implementation of the Biosafety regulatory framework is expected to commence during this year.

• Development of the new STI Policy;
With the last RST policy having been formulated in 1999, and the subsequent enabling Act enacted in 2004, it is evident that there are certain policy challenges compounded by the current and emerging issues. The NCRST has commenced with the process of reviewing the 1999 policy in order to develop a new National Science, Technology and Innovation (NSTI) policy. This is expected to be completed during the course of 2016.

• Formulation of the five year NPRSTI for 2017/18 to 2022/2023
As provided for in the 2004 RST Act, the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology, once in every three years, or at such other intervals as the Minister may determine, must prepare a national programme for research, science and technology for the following three years, or such other period as the Minister may determine. During the course of 2016, the NCRST will develop the five-year National Programme for Research, Science, Technology and Innovation (NPRSTI) for the period 2017/18 to 2022/2023. This shall be aligned to the Fifth National Development Plan (NDP5). 

Building research capacities

• Issuance of Calls for Proposals
NCRST will issue National Calls for Research Proposals, in line with the 2004 RST Act, on Research Capacity Building at Institutions of Higher Learning, PhD Research and the establishment of Centers of Excellence and Research Chair at institutions of higher learning
The aim of this funding opportunity is to improve the capacity for enhancing the quality of research. The funding is a fixed-term and intended for measures that strengthen the research areas outlined in the universities’ strategies and that support any selection of research areas. The funding is open to all scientific, scholarly and artistic disciplines in line with the NPRSTI. Strengthening of university research profiles will often require collaboration and effective distribution of work between universities. In addition, it contributes to reaching the objectives laid out in the NPRSTI to achieve closer cooperation between higher education institutions and Government/private research institutions and more clearly profiled responsibilities for each institution.

• Finalization of the Strategy for National Research Infrastructure
The NCRST is formulating the National Strategy for National Research Infrastructure that would provide for upgrading and maintenance to retain the necessary standards in terms of usability and access. RSTI infrastructure refers to facilities, resources and related services used by the scientific community to conduct scientifically sound and relevant research in their respective fields, ranging from social sciences, engineering sciences, IT sciences, astronomy, genomics to nanotechnologies.  This strategy is expected to be completed in 2016.

• Construction of the RSTI Valley at an advanced stage
The design and construction of the National RSTI Valley is expected to commence in 2016.  The National RSTI Valley will host various facilities, including the National Training and Research facility; The National Innovation hub; National Space Science and Technology Centre/Council and the National Science Demonstration Centre.

Promoting cooperation in research and innovation activities

The NCRST will continue to implement agreements signed with local, regional and international strategic partners and would also continue to engage stakeholders to form partnerships to harness science, technology and innovation. 

Disseminating of scientific and technological knowledge

The NCRST will host the following events as part of the strategy to disseminate scientific and technological knowledge and also to promote science and technology:

• National Science, Technology and Innovation Festival 2016
This event is one of many initiatives aimed at encouraging learners to take up careers in mathematics, science, technology and innovation and to promote public awareness on these fields that are primary to the country’s development.

• National Science Fair - September 2016
The aim of the National Science Fair is to:
•    stimulate interest in young people in science, math, and engineering;
•    provide educational experience through participation in scientific research;
•    give public recognition to learners for the work that they have done;
•    encourage inquisitive students to explore their environment in a systematic, logical manner; and
•    stimulate students interest in science and technology while simultaneously promoting the development of life skills of communication, decision-making, evaluation of alternative solutions and critical thinking.

• National Research Symposium - September 2016
The National Research Symposium is part of our deliberate efforts to garner public support to researchers’ results by encouraging the dissemination and publication of research results. Apart from providing a platform for researchers to communicate their research results with peers, the symposium is a point for interfacing between researchers and policy makers as well as funders of research

• Establishing the Namibia Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Chapter– by November 2016

• Establishing the Academy of Sciences - by November 2016

Innovation in the economic and social sectors

• We will issue a National Innovators Call that will run throughout the year with three closure intervals;
The NCRST’s goal through the Innovation and Technology Development Programme is to nurture the newest technologies and products on the market by translating research outputs into usable everyday life technologies and products. As such, the programme is positioned to occupy a funding gap between research and commercialization. The overall objective of the programme is to provide support for development of technological innovations in order to enhance enterprise competiveness and sustainable growth. A call will be issued running throughout 2016 and will have three different closing intervals.

• Establishment of Technology Stations at Universities and the Vocational Training Centre;
The NCRST will partner with Universities and the Vocational Training Centre to establish Technology Stations which are expected to contribute towards improving the competitiveness of industry through the application of specialised knowledge, technology and facilitating the interaction between industry (especially SMEs) and academia in order to enable and support innovation.

• Operationalisation of the Demola concept in Namibia
The NCRST decided to enter into a service agreement with New Factory International LTD from Finland to accept the usage rights of the Demola concept (including the Demola trademark). Demola is a collaborative open innovation platform concept where university students develop product and service demos together with companies and create new solutions to real-life problems. Demola provides systematic tools and processes for entrepreneurial co-creation and practical co-learning of students and professionals.