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Has the face of science changed in SA during the past 20 years?

By Hugh Campbell – GM Hortgro Science

I was recently given two publication of interest. The first publication is titled: “The changing face of South African science. SciSTIP STI Indicator Report no 1” edited by Johann Mouton and Robert Tijssen and published in 2016 by Stellenbosch University. The second publication is a based on the 2015/16 R&D Survey titled: “Research and Development in the South African Public Sector” authored by N Vlotman & M Clayford of CeSTII at the Human Sciences Research Council. I would like to share some of the observations of the reports with you.

An internationally accepted measure that allows one to compare the investment in Research and Development (R&D) is the Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) expressed as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In South Africa, this increased from 0.6% in 1997/98 to 0.8% in 2015/16. Information sourced from the OECD publication “Main Science and Technology Indicators – Volume 2017/1”  allows one to compare our investment in R&D with other countries as follows: USA: 2.79%, EU: 2.38%, China: 2.07%, UK: 1.7%, New Zealand: 1.2%, Australia: 2.11%, Chile: 0.38%, Argentina: 0.63%, Japan: 3.29%, Korea: 4.23% and Israel as the highest at 4.25%. The gross expenditure of South Africa on R&D amounted to R32.337 billion in 2015/16. The public sector contributed 55% and the private sector the remaining 45%.  The South African government’s Medium Term Strategic Framework (2014-2019) sets a policy target of increasing the R&D expenditure to 1.5% of GDP as part of its strategy to support growth and development. We are only half way to achieving this objective. A recent study on the contributions of industries and government to R&D in the SA fruit industry shows that we are well below the required investment level.  It is clear that the investment from both industry and government needs to increase in order to sustain and grow our industry.

Human resource is a crucial pillar of South Africa’s innovation system. In 1990 18% of the scientific output was due to scientists over the age of 50.  This grew to 50% in 2001 – a symptom of the aging scientific population.  In order to address this issue, an initiative was launched in 2003 to incentivize the production of research publications and grow the number of Master and Doctoral graduates.  The number of Masters graduates grew from 3 751 in 2005 to 7 229 in 2014 with Doctoral graduates growing from 1 189 in 2005 to 2 258 in 2014.  The number of researchers has remained constant around 43 000.  However, if one looks at the total number of researchers per 1 000 people employed, SA moved from 1.17 in 2001 to 1.48 in 2012.  If one compares other countries then it is evident SA is at the low end of the scale and regard the development of innovation as less important as a generator of growth.  Israel and Japan are at the top-end employing 10.8 and 10 researchers respectively per 1 000 people employed. The EU average is 8, the UK is higher at 9.2 while Chile is way down at 1.

A final interesting statistic is the PhD’s per million of a population.  SA has moved from 23 in 2004 to 36 in 2012 as compared to UK at 321, the USA at 243, Switzerland at 455 and Germany at 327.

In summary, I have only highlighted some of the funding and human resource elements of the innovation system of SA. In terms of the total system, a number of structural shifts have taken place and there have been some significant achievements and positive impacts.  However, there are still some major challenges ahead in terms of the need to increase the investment in R&D as well as the need to expand and transform the science base.

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