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Political parties unveil election pledges for science

Three political parties in South Africa have published their manifestos ahead of what is expected to be the country’s most hotly disputed polls since 1994.

The ruling African National Congress launched its manifesto earlier in January, the Economic Freedom Fighters on 2 February and new party GOOD, led by former Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, on 5 February.

Of the trio, the EFF has—perhaps surprisingly—the most to say about science and research policy, while GOOD has the least. The ANC mentions research less than it did in previous election manifestos, and is weak on concrete actions.

ANC emphasis on innovation

The ANC manifesto places more emphasis on innovation and readiness for the fourth industrial revolution than on research. It promises to create a “legal and regulatory framework for promotion of innovation” at an unspecified date and boost funding for research linked to innovation.

Worth noting is that the ANC has abandoned its long-standing target of spending 1.5 per cent of GDP on R&D—in its manifesto at least. Eschewing spending targets completely, it says the party will “increase spending on innovation and aim for more technological breakthroughs critical to the country’s development through support for research”.

It does, however, promise to invest in agriculture and renewable energy research.

Previous election manifestos have floated the 1.5 per cent target, and the ANC-run government’s draft science white paper, published last year, reiterates that the target must be met “over the next decade”. South Africa’s most recent R&D survey for the financial year 2016/17 pegged national investments in R&D at 0.82 per cent of GDP.

The scant mention of science in the ANC manifesto may come as a surprise to many scientists, given that president Cyril Ramaphosa is widely perceived as more pro-science than his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. For example, Ramaphosa and Chinese president Xi Jinping spent a rare day focused on science matters during the latter’s state visit in July 2018.

Ramaphosa was also the highest level government representative ever to attend the country’s annual science forum as deputy president in 2017. But at the 2018 forum in December last year, rumours that he was due to appear again, this time as president, were dashed.

EFF takes aim at science

Meanwhile, the EFF led by Julius Malema has broadened its scope with a bulky 160-page manifesto. There are dedicated sections for science and research, more than last time. It promises to triple research funding by 2024, raising GERD to 2.5 per cent, which is comparable to the level in many rich nations.

The EFF backs unspecified funding boosts in research and science across the board: higher salaries for researchers, innovation, shale gas extraction, and research on HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and diabetes.

The EFF also wants to set up a slew of research institutions. The manifesto promises “four specialised health research institutes” for TB, malaria, HIV/Aids and cancer, as well as a dedicated technology university. Also proposed is an “independent state electricity economic research institute” which will be tasked with “more than 100 years of energy infrastructure planning”.

Other proposed research centres are: three in agriculture (animal husbandry, seeds, soil and irrigation); a state pharmaceutical research centre; two to focus on “cures and treatments for communicable and non-communicable diseases”; AI and robotics in health; renewable energy and batteries; nuclear energy and disposal of nuclear waste; oil and gas extraction; two centres on sewage, dam development, irrigation and desalination; drone development; and minerals and mineral beneficiation,

The manifesto does not specify how these centres will operate or how they will fit in with existing centres of excellence and research institutes operating in the specified research areas.

State-owned enterprises will have to spend 2 per cent of their budgets on research by 2022, the manifesto states. This comes as spending by the country’s SOEs has slumped at the same time as they have been rocked by numerous scandals and allegations of corruption.

The EFF proposes an overhaul to science and mathematics at school level, including a promise to make robotics and coding part of the curriculum by 2023. At undergraduate level, the EFF plans to set up incentives for studying science, engineering, software development, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The manifesto makes bolder promises as well, such as supplying every student in the country with a laptop by 2024, and the launch of five state satellites by 2023.

GOOD intentions, science snubbed

De Lille’s new movement, GOOD, makes no explicit mention of science or research, though the manifesto does include renewable energy and climate change mitigation.

De Lille and the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, were involved in an acrimonious split towards the end of 2018. Many in GOOD’s leadership followed De Lille’s exodus from the DA.

The DA is yet to launch its election manifesto, as are the other main opposition parties: the Inkatha Freedom Party, the United Democratic Front, the African Christian Democratic Party, Freedom Front Plus, Congress of the People and Agang.

Research Africa will publish in-depth pieces with more detail on the larger parties’ science plans in the run-up to the national election in May. If you have a science or research question for the politicians leave us a comment or tweet us @ResearchAfrica.