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Flat SA science budget prompts complaints

Image: DSI

Parties from across the political spectrum called for more funding for science after Blade Nzimande delivered his first budget speech as South Africa’s minister for higher education, science and technology.

The debate on the 2019/2020 budget for the Department of Science and Technology—which is being rebranded the Department of Science and Innovation—took place in parliament in Cape Town on 9 July.

After delivering his budget speech, which will be followed by the budget for higher education on 12 July, Nzimande admitted that the DSI’s R8.15 billion (US$580 million) budget is “definitely not adequate” for its tasks.

“We need to do all we can to look for more funding given the importance of what this department is doing for our country,” Nzimande said. 

The total spending figure is a 4.5 per cent increase from the R7.8bn the department received for 2018/2019. This is approximately in line with inflation, meaning there is no real funding increase for the department.

The minister said that R1.5bn will be spent on postgraduate and research support in 2019/2020, rising to a total of R4.6bn over the next three years. Nzimande said this will support 2,500 PhD students and 4,500 researchers, among other beneficiaries.

The government’s sovereign innovation fund of R1bn per year over five years will kick off in April 2020, he said. “The fund is designed to largely de-risk the early stages of technology commercialisation and business development.” The fund is intended to move innovations to final products. It was first announced in May 2018.

Government will also pay more attention to the gender and racial composition of the country’s research community over the next few years, Nzimande said. It has commissioned a report to identify obstacles faced by black and women scientists, and the DSI will investigate matters of racism and patriarchy in science.

“While we acknowledge that a lot has been done, there is also clearly a need and urgency to significantly accelerate transformation in the racial and gender profile of our academic and research communities,” he said.

Science councils and agencies will alter their approaches to focus on inclusive economic growth, Nzimande said. He added that the department will support research linked to communities, civil society, trade unions, as well as township and village economies.  

Meeting the R&D target

At a news conference before the budget vote, Nzimande reaffirmed the government’s commitment to spending 1.5 per cent of GDP on R&D by 2030. He admitted that the most recent figure of 0.82 per cent is “very low” and that the department “will pay a lot of attention to it” in future.

Nzimande said president Cyril Ramaphosa’s passion for the fourth industrial revolution, a popular topic during the budget debate, will give added impetus to reaching the target.

He added that the department will aim to “piggyback” on president Ramaphosa’s drive to drum up increased foreign direct investment to swell its coffers. Nzimande said that better co-funding agreements between the public and private sectors could also boost funding to reach the target, as could greater cooperation and co-funding between government departments.

His views were echoed by Philemon Mapulane, an African National Congress MP and chair of the portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology, in his reply to the budget.

Speaking on behalf of the committee, Mapulane called for more funding to be made available for the department and urged the private sector to increase R&D spending.

Neither of the two largest opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, said they were impressed by the budget. But the two parties disagreed on the merit of merging the science department with that of higher education.

Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s shadow minister, bemoaned the merger of the “very well-run gem” science department with the “stagnant and overloaded” higher education one. Bozzoli called the DST the most neglected department in government and its budget “paltry”. “The DST is the mainstay in South Africa’s modest effort to develop and sustain its own science base, in other words to decolonise us from scientific control by outsiders,” she said.

The EFF rejected the budget, as it has done every year. The party sent its former science portfolio committee member, Nazier Paulsen, to reply to the budget instead of its new representative on the committee, Phuti Keetse.

Paulsen called on government to either incentivise or compel foreign companies to transfer technologies to the country. “If science and technology is to play a role in the development of the economy we need a state that is not dictated to by capital,” he said.

Paulsen said the EFF welcomed the merger of the two departments. But he rejected the choice of minister, saying that Nzimande will be “an even bigger catastrophe” at the new ministry than he was as minister of higher education.

The National Assembly will vote on the 2019/2020 budget on 23 July.