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Funding woes hit South Africa’s science department

Image: Ken Teegardin [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation is grappling with funding shortages, including a lack of money to fill vacancies and to fulfil its expanded innovation mandate, its director-general has said.

Phil Mjwara and chief financial officer Pretty Makukule briefed parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology about the challenges faced by the DSI and its entities on 21 August.

One of the main challenges for the new department, Mjwara said, is to find funding in an already constrained budget for its expanded innovation mandate. The plan, he said, is to get the money from within government itself.

“We have started a programme to look at budget coordination within science councils that report to other ministries. This is an initiative to say if there is a budget that is allocated to the science council … how do we ensure that that budget is locked and not used for other initiatives,” said Mjwara.

He said the DSI is looking for an “expanded role” in science councils not in the “DSI family”. Although he didn’t mention their names, these would include the Agricultural Research Council and the South African Medical Research Council. 

Mjwara also said that the department is mulling structural changes to meet its innovation role.

Makukule said that the department’s budget cuts in recent years are exacting their toll, including an inability to fill key positions. The DSI has 102 vacancies, which is 20 per cent of the approved organisational structure. This has led to low morale because of increased workloads and high staff turnover, she said.

Feeling the pressure

Funding woes extend to the DSI agencies, which include the National Research Foundation and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

“The underfunding is a perennial problem for all our entities,” said Mjwara. He said that the international norm is that these entities should get at least half their budget from the state. But nowadays most don’t, he said: “Over the years almost all of these entities are now receiving less than 50 per cent [from government] with the exception of the Human Sciences Research Council.”

The CSIR receives a third of its budget from the treasury, and the rest from contract income.

Mjwara said relatively new entities like the Technology and Innovation Agency and the South African National Space Agency are hardest hit by the lack of funding. SANSA’s parliamentary grant of R143.5 million is dwarfed by its projected budget of R2.5 billion. Close to 90 per cent of the parliamentary grant goes on staffing costs. Mjwara said this limits SANSA’s scope.

He added that “ailing science and technology infrastructure” is another challenge, as is the loss of scarce skills due to budget cuts.

The entities’ financial difficulties are also holding up racial and gender transformation, Mjwara said. He highlighted the South African Research Chairs Initiative as an example. Despite transformation efforts, 70 per cent of chair holders are white and 55 per cent male. Three universities—Cape Town, Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch—hold 40 per cent of the chairs.

Hopes for the merger

Yet Mjwara is hopeful that the refashioned department will meet the challenges by working together with the Department of Higher Education and Training, with which it was merged under one ministry in May this year.

The reorganised department will facilitate “much better” implementation of the policies drawn up by the old Department of Science and Technology, according to Mjwara.

He said the merger of the departments will enable a “step change in the expansion and transformation of human capabilities” in the national innovation system.

“The challenge is how do we manage the responsibilities that we have and the learning that we’ve been doing over the last [few] years to create greater impact?” he said.