Stellenbosch researcher warns against short-termist research support in wake of pandemic
Research funding in the post-Covid-19 world will be “a real balancing act” between producing strategically important evidence and keeping the science system able to respond to a wide range of needs, a leading South African scholar has said.
Addressing a webinar organised by the South African Young Academy of Science on 23 July to discuss post-pandemic African science, Johann Mouton from Stellenbosch University said there is a danger that policymakers will focus on short-term objectives when funding science.
The scientometrics and science policy expert said it was understandable that governments want to steer research activities towards projects that could help tackle immediate challenges related to Covid-19—especially given the pressure on government budgets caused by the pandemic.
However, this should not give way to short-termism in the wider research-funding enterprise, he said. “You cannot predict the next crisis,” he noted, adding that strong scientific institutes are built over decades, but can be killed “very quickly” if starved of sustainable funding.
As an example, he gave the Stellenbosch-based South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, a government-funded centre of excellence which last year was on the brink of losing its funding due to not fitting in with the government’s strategic priorities for funding. In an ironic twist, Mouton said, SACEMA was the first institution that the South African government turned to when seeking predictions on how the pandemic might play out in the country.
“If you don’t invest in the long-term support for key institutions then you run the risk that when you need them you don’t have them,” he said. “We have to make sure, especially in Africa, where we have a dearth of strong research institutions, that we don’t just think of the short-term.”