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Critics point out ‘inconsistencies’ in SA science white paper

Two academics writing in the South African Journal of Science have criticised the country’s draft science and technology white paper for “inconsistencies” and “lack of detail”.

David Walwyn and Laurens Cloete from the University of Pretoria published their criticism on 26 November. The white paper has caused a buzz among scientists and policymakers and focuses on socio-economic development and transformation.  

“There are inconsistencies, there is a lack of detail in certain key areas and there is an impossibly long list of policy interventions,” Cloete and Walwyn write in their critique. 

According to the authors, the policy contains “26 policy intents and 340 policy actions and sub-actions".  

They want a clearer strategy for human capital development and a “much more direct list of interventions” of how science will create jobs and grow the economy.  

Alternative reforms 

The authors claim that the policy proposals in the white paper are “vague and non-committal” and advocate a far more radical overhaul of public research organisations.  

Cloete and Walwyn’s ideas include closing the Human Sciences Research Council and incorporating its units into universities, removing the management of national research facilities from the NRF, and moving the funding aspects of the South African Medical Research Council to the NRF. 

They want the HSRC’s Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators to be incorporated into the National Advisory Council on Innovation. The draft white paper envisions an expanded role for the national advisory body. 

Walwyn and Cloete also take issue with the longstanding problem of funding for research. They say that the white paper calls for more funding but does not suggest how this should be achieved, and they describe a 1.5 per cent of GDP target for science and technology spending as “wishful thinking”.  

South Africa has for many years set the 1.5 per cent target but never come close to meeting it. The white paper again commits to raising spending levels to 1.5 per cent of GDP in the decade after its adoption, and up to 2 per cent in the decade after. 

While most of the talk from the DST about where to find the extra money has been about how to revive flagging industry R&D spending, Walwyn and Cloete say the state should take the lead itself.  

“South Africa should learn from China’s science and technology policy, which has over a long period advocated and implemented a highly proactive role for the state in technology transfer and R&D as the starting point for its innovation-driven development and economic growth strategy,” they say.