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Financial outlook a concern for SA research funding

South Africa should be wary of economic trends that could sink its efforts to increase spending on research and development, the National Advisory Council warned in a report published on 28 September.

The report is a snapshot of the country’s research, education and innovation landscape leading up to the end of 2015. It warns that South Africa is falling behind all the major world groupings in R&D expenditure: its BRICS partners, upper-middle-class countries, the G20 and the world average.

The country’s declining business R&D and its drop in manufacturing research are a worry, said Azar Jammine, a NACI board member, at the report launch in Pretoria.

He also warned that an “extraordinary decline” in foreign direct investment in the final years of the survey might put a dampener on R&D spending. Foreign direct investment, adjusted to inflation and other factors, plummeted by more than R30 billion (US$2.2bn) between 2014 and 2015.

The report is not all bad news. The proportion of the national agricultural spend dedicated to R&D doubled from 2003/04 to 2014/15, from 0.29 per cent to 0.66 per cent. Research also accounted for a growing amount of national services industry spend, the report says.

But the fact that South Africa’s total R&D spend as a proportion of GDP—currently at 0.77 per cent—has stagnated since the global financial crisis began in 2008 is cause for concern, the report says.

“This trend is worrying as it is known that those countries that invest heavily in R&D during a period of slow economic growth emerge proportionately stronger during the subsequent upturn of the economy when it arrives,” it says.

Continentally, South Africa continues its research domination. The country accounted for 90 per cent of the Southern African Development Community’s total R&D spend in 2013, as well as 40 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s R&D spend. The country housed more than a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s researchers in 2013.

But this is not necessarily a good thing, the report states. “[it] illustrates the appallingly low proclivity to invest in R&D in the African continent as a whole," it says.

Slight improvements at university

In terms of education, the reports paints a varied picture. While the report brands South Africa’s primary education levels in science and technology as “abysmal”, universities fare better.

“The report demonstrates that there is a number of strengths in South Africa’s innovation system, particularly on the higher education and research side,” said Gabriel Goddard, the World Bank’s chief economist for Southern Africa, during the launch.

He praised university’s productivity in terms of high-impact publications. According to the NACI report, South Africa trebled its publications output in the 10-year period leading up to 2015, and increased its share in worldwide publications and citations.

Enrolments in science and technology increased marginally over the ten-year period to 30 per cent of total enrolments, up from 28 per cent in 2005. Science enrolment of previously disadvantaged groups rose to nearly 80 per cent in 2015, while enrolment also increased for women.

But the higher education system is still markedly skewed to the country’s former elite. The report found that 60 per cent of staff members with a PhD and the bulk of National Research Foundation-rated researchers were white.