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In depth: SA’s proposed science policy

Images (l-r): Mike Peel [CC BY-SA 4.0], Matt-80 [CC BY 2.0], Warren Rohner [CC BY-SA 2.0], all via Wikimedia Commons

Science minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and Department of Science and Technology officials unveiled South Africa’s draft science, technology and innovation policy in Pretoria on 10 September.

Stakeholders can comment on the document, which received the nod from cabinet last week, for 30 days. The DST has arranged a 9 November summit on the policy before it heads back to cabinet for final approval.

The vision of the paper is ‘Science, technology and innovation enabling inclusive development in a changing world’.

“It focuses on using science, technology and innovation to accelerate inclusive economic growth, make the economy more competitive and improve people’s everyday lives,” the minister said on 10 September.

Kubayi-Ngubane said success hinges on social development and transformation, as well as responding to global megatrends, such as the fourth industrial revolution and the rise of China as an economic power.

Phil Mjwara, the DST’s long-serving director-general, said that there will be an increased focus on interdisciplinary research and an enhanced emphasis on innovation.

Glenda Kruss, head of the Human Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators, said she was pleased that the draft white paper places emphasis on improving how innovation structures work together.

“What’s most notable in the new white paper is the commitment to put the national innovation system to work better and to build a stronger innovation culture,” she said. “We have policies and institutions – now we must put them to work.”

In the draft paper, the government once more commits to a spending target of 1.5 per cent of GDP on R&D, to be achieved in the decade after the white paper’s adoption. An “aspirational 2 per cent” is set for the following decade. The latest survey, 2015/2016, puts GERD at 0.8 per cent.

The funding boost will come from provincial and local governments that will “more actively contribute” to research in future, other national government departments, improving incentives for business R&D, foreign investment, and through development finance institutions like the Industrial Development Corporation and the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Kubayi-Ngubane also said a sovereign innovation fund will be set up in 2019 as a means to further boost GERD.

Imran Patel, the DST deputy director-general for socio-economic Innovation partnerships, expressed his faith in the tax rebate scheme to boost business R&D and the national figure by extension. He said that the challenges faced by the incentive scheme have largely been overcome and that it is “beginning to demonstrate value”.

The white paper will be implemented through decadal plans which will be reviewed by the DST at least every five years. Because these plans have yet to be produced, timelines and targets are largely absent from the white paper.

Transformation and megatrends

A strong focus for the plan is on greater inclusivity in the national science system, particularly for young, women and black researchers.

The paper calls for improved gender representation across the sector, gender-sensitive research agendas, funding support for women researchers, gender-sensitive monitoring and evaluation and mechanisms to find and combat bias against women in the system.

The draft says support will reflect the “multidimensional nature of black students’ lived realities”. Other areas where inclusivity will be targeted are academic staff, curricula and research agendas, a greater focus on African STI, elimination of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and improving support and academic success rates for black students.

The DST will work on a “national open science and data framework” to steer the adoption of open science in South Africa. The country will also spread the open science agenda elsewhere on the continent.

The white paper wants to create a science-aware society that will include conditions in grants to science councils and universities to communicate research to the public.

To tap into the megatrends the white paper wants dedicated funding for areas of future importance such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and a stronger focus on the basic sciences.

Other areas of focus are information and communication technologies, big data, diaspora engagement, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and intra-African collaboration.

The white paper envisions a “responsible research and innovation approach” which will hinge on societal engagement, racial and gender transformation, improving education, increasing open access, ethical considerations towards society and the environment, and good governance.

Development and collaboration

In accordance with DST statements in recent years the white paper wants science to be a tool to improve service delivery, economic growth, and the lives of the poor. The policy hopes to ground and coordinate science in departments across government.

Mjwara said that the DST will be part of government’s “service delivery platforms” which will meet once a year to spur on services to citizens.

An inter-ministerial committee chaired by the science minister will be established in an effort to streamline government’s science efforts. Government will also set up an “annual STI plenary” under the direction of the presidency. This will bring together industry, higher education, civil society and government.

The National Advisory Council on Innovation will act as a sort of go -between, which will take the discussions of the plenary further and provide scientific data to the inter-ministerial committee. NACI will also link to other government departments, and will have an expanded role.

The white paper aims to jump-start research at South Africa’s embattled state-owned enterprises (SOEs). R&D in these bodies, such as Eskom, has been falling since 2008. The draft does not go into detail, however, saying only that conditions will be created to encourage SOEs to boost R&D, and that “explicit plans” for the SOEs to contribute to national R&D capability will be part of the decadal implementations.