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Rocky road ahead for South African research

South Africa's research funding—already insufficient according to academics, university management and even science minister Naledi Pandor—will come under additional strain as resources become scarcer and the economy struggles, writes Sarah Wild.

The start of the 2016 university term saw the country’s #FeesMustFall university movement reignited. The student protest, which brought university exams to a standstill at the end of last year, achieved a zero-fee increase for this financial year and a pledge to end staff outsourcing.

However, the main target of the protesters is free education, which comes at a cost.

“The state is being called upon to invest more in undergraduate higher education and this will impact on research funding and therefore financial support to postgraduate research training,” Pandor said in December. “Until fairly recently there has been little or no national conversation around this crucial aspect of university funding.”

South African universities have four funding streams: a government subsidy administered through the Department of Higher Education and Training; individual research programmes funded by the Department of Science and Technology; research finance from corporates or donors; and student fees.

Government has committed R6.5 billion (US$400 million) to cover the fee-increase shortfall, but the future is uncertain.

“This year we got a bailout from government … but we don’t know what’s happening [after that],” said Zeblon Vilakazi, deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand. “The decline in the Rand and [the fact that] our budgets have been put under pressure because of these events [means] we’ll have to sharpen our pens and focus on strategic areas.”

Sarah Wild is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The focus on strategic areas—such as radio astronomy, palaeosciences or Southern Ocean research—has traditionally been South Africa’s way of stretching its relatively small research budget.

South Africa spends less than 1 per cent of its GDP on research and development. The average gross expenditure on R&D for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is 2.4 per cent and their GDPs are substantially larger than South Africa’s.

The largest funder of R&D in the country is government. In the most recent science, technology and innovation indicators show that in the 2012-13 financial year government spent more on R&D than business. This is remarkable, as industry has traditionally been the main driver of R&D in democratic South Africa. Government R&D funding is usually used to bankroll basic research and human capital development, whereas industry R&D focuses on product development and increasing competitiveness.

‘No new money’ for NRF

The DST, through the National Research Foundation, is a major funder of government research. However, its funding is drawn from the same pool of shrinking resources.

“There is a declining tax base, and the National Treasury has made it clear that there will not be new money,” says Romilla Maharaj, executive director of human and institutional capital development at the NRF. “As a parastatal, the NRF gets the bulk of money from government, so any financial flexibility we might have is based on what the fiscus can afford.”

Subsidising undergraduate education at universities will absorb billions of Rand out of the fiscus. “The only way we can generate additional resources is by increasing our tax base,” Maharaj says.

In the short term, university management says it is unlikely that research programmes will be affected by #FeesMustFall.

“There are no immediate constraints for the continued allocation via research subsidy funds … since the department of higher education and training grants were provided as multi-year allocations [up until 2016-17],” says Chris Nhlapo, deputy vice-chancellor for research, technology innovation and partnerships at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. “However, in the long term, the over-dependence of CPUT on [government] funds, as per the current system, poses a high risk for the research endeavour.”

He said that the university would have to diversify its funding base to cushion itself against this risk.

South Africa’s historically disadvantaged universities—which received less support and fewer resources from the apartheid government as they were considered “black” universities—will feel the bite of this austerity more than the historically white universities, such as the University of Cape Town or Stellenbosch University.

Because of their excellent research capabilities, these historically privileged institutions are able to access and leverage other sources of funding, aside from government.

“Most of the money we spend on research is contract research,” says Eugene Cloete, vice-rector for research, innovation and postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University. “This is the research we do for companies, government and so forth.”

The effect of #FeesMustFall on Stellenbosch University’s postgraduate students—which comprise about a third of the student body—was “minimal”, he says. “We have very few postgraduates who actually pay for their own studies; they are covered by bursaries and scholarships. Your research-intensive universities, [such as] ourselves, Wits, Pretoria and so on, we have a large postgraduate student component and so we’ll be less affected by the zero increase in tuition fees.”

Rand drop: Boon or curse?

Wits University’s Vilakazi says that a greater threat to research in South Africa is the devaluation of its currency.

The latter half of 2015 saw the Rand depreciate by about 30 per cent to the dollar. While fingers have been pointed at the sudden removal of finance minister Nthanthla Nene, this is part of a trend of Rand weakening against major currencies.

“We have not as a country anticipated this huge plunge in the devaluation of the Rand,” NRF’s Maharaj says. “Traditionally, Treasury and the Department of Science and Technology had not made resources [available] for hedging against currency fluctuations. At a system level, there needs to be a rethink.”

This is relevant when it comes to equipment and international membership fees. A DST spokeswoman explained that while it had expected researchers to factor the effect of the weakening Rand in their equipment and travel grant applications to the NRF, “if the Rand further weakens it will have a negative effect on the level of funding available for higher education institutions to acquire equipment or access international research facilities.”

The spokeswoman added, “Member fees and access charges of South African researchers at international research facilities would be negatively affected by a weak Rand.”

But while the weakening Rand is detrimental to research at universities that depend on government and the NRF, it is benefiting universities that already have strong research capabilities.

Stellenbosch University’s Cloete estimates that about 30 per cent of his university’s income comes from international funding. “With the decline in the Rand, that has led to an equivalent percentage increase in research funding. Literally, it has meant millions of Rand,” he says.

He says that the weak Rand makes it cheaper for international companies or collaborators to work with South African researchers. “They can get the same research in South Africa and it comes at a fraction of the cost [compared to European countries]… We’ll continue to capitalise on that.”

Sarah Wild is an award-winning science journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.