Low investment stifles competitiveness


Spending on research and development in South Africa has yet to reach the goal of 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – but is not far behind at 0.92 percent, according to the National Survey on Research and Development for 2008/09.

The survey, compiled by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) with Stats SA and the Department of Science and Technology, released this week, shows the figures on research and development (R&D) spending and trends in government, tertiary education and the private sector, the Sunday Independent reports.

According to the department, the report, when viewed with previous reports, will provide indicators on South Africa’s failings and successes in the fields of science, engineering and technology, and ultimately global competitiveness. The survey notes an overall increase in R&D spending of 1.3% – up from R18.6 billion in 2007/08 to R21 billion in 2008/09. However, in addition to falling short of the 1% goal in 2008/09, the country only had a nominal increase in full-time equivalent researchers – from 19 320 in 2007/08 to 19 384 in 2008/09.
“Engineering sciences was the research field with the highest proportion of R&D expenditure. R&D expenditure in this field increased from 22.5% of total R&D expenditure in 2007/08 to 24.4% in 2008/09. Engineering sciences was followed by medical sciences which accounted for 14.9% of expenditure and computer and communication technologies which accounted for 13.1%. “Social sciences and the humanities collectively captured 12.5% of expenditure at the level recorded for 2007/08 (12.4%),” the report noted.

The department’s deputy director-general for human capital and knowledge, Dr Molapo Qhobela, said increased bursary funding for post-graduate students announced by minister Naledi Pandor was aimed at improving the number of researchers and R&D in general. The department has created an additional 25 post-doctoral fellowships, each worth R180 000 a year, over three years.

This initiative will be managed by the National Research Foundation, which will be facilitating the allocation of the additional R42 million allocated for honours bursaries, R11m more for fellowships and R10m more to support Master’s and doctoral students close to graduation. “You’re not just producing post-graduate students. These are the people who will be producing patents and research and teaching others, the Sunday broadsheet reports. “If we invest in them, we are more likely to achieve our intended goal,” Qhobela said.

The department would also supply funding for 62 more research chairs, on top of the current 92, with a focus on “technology missions, priority research areas, science and technology for poverty alleviation, engineering and applied technology”.

Over three years the department will also be investing R1 426 billion in research equipment, including increasing broadband connectivity at all universities. According to the survey, the private sector is still spending the most on R&D at 58.6% of the total spend in 2008/09 – up from 57.7% in 2007/08. Tertiary institutions followed with 19.9% in 2008/09, which is up from 19.4% in 2007/08.

Female researchers are still in short supply, however, remaining “relatively static at 39.7%”. “Argentina and the Russian Federation continue to lead with women researchers comprising 51.5% and 41.8% t respectively,” a summary of the report notes. The higher education sector employs the highest number of women researchers – 11 616 – who account for 73% of all women researchers in the country, the Sunday Independent said.