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SA budget offers a breather for science department

Image: Wesley Nitsckie [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

But boost tends to focus on innovation rather than research

South Africa’s 2020/21 budget has presented a surprising monetary boost for the Department of Science and Innovation. 

Tito Mboweni, the finance minister, outlined the budget on 26 February at Parliament in Cape Town. Amid much economic doom and gloom and belt tightening, the DSI will get a modest budget increase. This comes after years of cuts and shrinking allocations.

Yesterday’s budget allocated R8.797 billion (US$580 million) to the DSI—R174m more than projected. South African budgets are constructed as a medium-term expenditure framework, with the budget for the current financial year and projections for the two following years. Last year the DSI received R8.151bn, and its projected budget for 2020/21 was R8.623bn.

The DSI’s budget is also projected to grow at an average 5.8 per cent per year over the next three years—a hike from the average 3.8 per cent growth per year over three years projected in last year’s budget.

The increase is small, however, and several growing budget lines target the innovation part of the DSI’s mandate rather than scientific research. This is in line with the new science and innovation white paper, which focuses on harnessing science and technology for societal advancement and economic growth. 

For example, the DSI will receive an additional R1.2bn over the next three years to establish a Sovereign Innovation Fund. “The fund will be designed to complement and enhance existing funding instruments, and provide large‐scale funding for the development and maturation of radical innovations and emerging industries,” the budget documents state.

The DSI’s technology innovation programme gets R280m more than in 2019/20. That’s less than the R310m extra for the DSI’s research, development and support programme, but the research budget is three to four times larger, meaning that the proportional increase is greater for innovation. 

Yet, the Technology Innovation Agency receives only a modest increase of about R15m this time around, while the much smaller—in terms of their respective budgets—South African National Space Agency gets about R50m more.

The National Research Foundation’s overall budget has been reduced by R93m to R4.4bn in 2020/21. And, as we reported in 2018, there will be significant cuts to the numbers of postgraduate bursaries paid out by the NRF as it concentrates funding on fewer students. The target for 2019/20 was for 10,800 bursaries up to masters level to be paid out. This will decrease to 9,300 in 2020/21 and only 5,100 in 2022/23. For doctoral bursaries, the 2020/21 target is 3,100, and 2,000 the year after. 

Mboweni offered a smattering of science-related news in his budget speech. He said that the government “shall commence work” on the Space Sciences Institute of the Pan African University, a continental five-campus university, whose Southern African node has been in limbo for many years. 

Mboweni said that the space science campus will be hosted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and funded from the African Renaissance Fund. The fund falls under the ambit of Naledi Pandor’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation and is meant to encourage continental cooperation.

Commenting on the budget, science minister Blade Nzimande said: “The establishment of the institute in our country will ensure that we continue to provide many opportunities for those in the space sciences industry, be it people focused on academia or providing technical and engineering skills.”

Mboweni also said that the proposed “university of science and innovation”—first mentioned by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his speech to the nation earlier this month—to be based in Ekurhuleni will be subject to a “feasibility study” by the Department of Higher Education and Training. Funding will be reallocated from DHET’s existing budget.