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Public procurement can bolster innovation, conference hears

Image: NRF

South African agency says government spending on goods and services is untapped source of funding

The National Research Foundation of South Africa wants to harness public procurement of goods and services as a driver of research investment and innovation, a conference has heard.

The conference, organised by the NRF in Pretoria from 14 to 15 November, discussed the link between public procurement and innovation.

This is something that is “not widely appreciated in the South African context”, Bishen Singh (pictured), chief financial officer at the NRF, told the opening session of the conference. “One finds very limited explicit policy instruments, programmes or systems seeking to operationalise public procurement as an innovation policy tool.”

The literature on public procurement and innovation in the African context is also “very limited”, he said.

Maximising resources 

Mosa Moshabela, who chairs the NRF board, told the opening session that public procurement was one of the ways available to bolster a country’s research and innovation investments in challenging economic times.

“With all that is happening in the world today, it is of utmost importance that we get creative in how we are going to maximise the use of our resources,” he said.

This goes beyond the NRF’s own procurement, Moshabela added, to the buying of goods and services across the whole of government. The NRF, in his view, needs to explore ways in which procurement can be leveraged across the innovation ecosystem.

“This includes ensuring that other public entities that are tasked with similar mandates within research and innovation can also access the tools for procurement to ensure that they can also optimally fulfil their mandates,” he told the conference. “It’s about serving the ecosystem as a whole.”

Broad benefits

Imraan Patel, deputy director-general at South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation, sought to reassure the conference that procurement as a mechanism to promote innovation was already on his department’s radar.

South Africa’s decadal plan for science envisages better coordination between all government departments whose remits in some way touch on science and innovation, he said, and this includes speaking to those departments about how they manage their procurement in ways that benefit the whole system of innovation.

He warned, however, that there is always the danger that corrupt practices and projects could dress up as innovation and public procurement. He said that the benefits of initiatives need to be “distributed broadly, not narrowly”.