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Cyril Ramaphosa unveils R1bn PhD initiative

 Image: DSI

South African president tells Pretoria meeting aim is to grow the fund fivefold by 2030

South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa announced a R1 billion (US$53 million) PhD training investment at the country’s first presidential science, technology and innovation panel held in Tshwane this week.

The initial investment will come from the country’s National Skills Fund, Ramaphosa told the 12 December gathering that brought leaders from government, academia, civil society and industry together to discuss ways to boost South Africa’s innovation system.

“The programme will build critical skills in areas like artificial intelligence research, advanced biotechnology, fuel cell development, batteries and other storage, and next-generation mining,” Ramaphosa said in his inaugural address.

He invited the private sector and international partners to assist in growing the fund to R5 billion by 2030. “Pooling resources and expertise has been a guiding principle of the work that [the] government is doing with organisations such as Business Unity South Africa and Business for South Africa,” he said.

Raising investments

Praising South Africa’s science prowess, Ramaphosa nevertheless identified several problems facing the country’s science, technology and innovation system.

While the number of South African students graduating from public universities has increased from 60,000 in 1994 to 230,000 in 2018, the country needs to raise its investment in R&D to capitalise on this growth, he said.

A major part of this would be to revive the country’s trailing spending on R&D, he added. In 2021 the country spent 0.6 of its GDP on R&D, far below its target of 1.5 per cent and much lower than leading industrial nations, he said. “This is a situation that we are determined to turn around.”

Unlocking knowledge

A number of senior South African scientists addressed the plenary, including Lynn Morris, deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation at the University of the Witwatersrand.

She said the country’s universities were full of people dedicated to conducting research and working closely with the science councils and agencies that invest in research and conduct research that could lead to commercialisation.

However, she said, the process of turning new knowledge and products into services is inefficient.“There is an innovation chasm that’s never changed much over a decade,” she said. “What we need is programmes that support innovation that have proven very successful… And we need to enable funding from ideation to commercialisation to be seamless across various funding instruments with no functional silos.”