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Science faces ‘survival’ crisis in wake of Covid-19 funding cuts

Image: GovernmentZA [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Research foundation worst off but universities and other agencies will also take direct hits

South Africa’s emergency budget, presented last week, will chop R764 million (US$44.7m) off money due to be spent via the National Research Foundation this financial year, according to government data.

The sum includes a R97m straight-up cut to NRF’s parliamentary grant. This is about 10 per cent of the parliamentary grant. The remaining R667m will be cut from “other transfer line items” which will affect the NRF budget, the Department of Science and Innovation said. It did not say which items those cuts referred to.  

The cuts are part of an emergency budget presented by finance minister Tito Mboweni on 24 June to reallocate funding to the coronavirus response. 

The NRF said it would speak to Research Professional about the detailed impacts of the cuts once it had discussed its medium-term funding outlook with the DSI this week. 

Still, in a preliminary interview last week, NRF director Molapo Qhobela said the cuts will be a severe hit for South African science. The next few years are “going to be about survival”, he said. “It will require cool heads, supporting and helping each other.” 

The NRF is not the only agency facing cuts (see full table at the foot of the article). The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research loses R323m in total, the Technology Innovation Agency R50m, the South African National Space Agency R36m, the Academy of Science of South Africa R2.8m, the Agricultural Research Council R30m, and the Human Sciences Research Council R32m.

A number of universities are also directly affected, due to their participation in projects* with budget lines controlled by the DSI. Stellenbosch University loses R10m; the Universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Tshwane University of Technology and the University of the Western Cape each lose R1m; Walter Sisulu University loses R670,000. The University of the Witwatersrand’s technology transfer and business arm, Wits Enterprise, loses R634,000. 

The Bakgatla ba Kgafela indigenous community in the North West Province loses R500,000, state-owned mining and minerals research organisation Mintek loses R7.4m, and monitoring, evaluation and learning business Khulisa Management Services loses R835,000.

*The DSI would not say which projects these cuts refer to and urged Research Professional to ask the affected agencies and institutions for further information. We are doing so and will publish the information as we receive it.

Table: Science funding cuts for 2020/21 (Source: DSI)

Each entity’s parliamentary grant will be cut by 10%, as follows:

Entity Amount cut R’000
Technology Innovation Agency 45 586 
South African National Space Agency 18 209 
National Research Foundation 96 610 
Council for Science and Industrial Research 99 765
Academy of Science of South Africa  2 790
Human Science Research Council 32 459 
Total 295 418

In addition to the above cuts, there are cuts that will have an impact on other transfer line items which will affect some initiatives within those budgets. The affected entities are:

Entity Amount cut R’000
University of KwaZulu-Natal 1 000
Bakgatla ba Kgafela 500
Walter Sisulu University 670
Tshwane University of Technology 1 000
National Research Foundation 668 342
Stellenbosch University 10 000
Agricultural Research Council 30 000
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research 225 160
Technology Innovation Agency 4 815
Mintek 7 400
South African National Space Agency 18 000
University of the Western Cape 1 469
Wits Enterprise 634
Khulisa Management Services 835
Unallocated 76 619
Total 1 046 444