Springboks pick up research pace

August 14, 1998

Spurred by the government, R&D in South Africa is booming, reports Karen MacGregor from Durban

South Africans glorify their sporting abilities but otherwise tend to be deeply self-deprecating. This national tendency is very evident in the field of research. The upshot is that graduates are gloomy because South Africa does not beat Britain, Canada and others in the proportion of gross domestic product spent on research and development.

In fact, the research picture looks rosy for a developing country just emerged from half a century of oppression, isolation and gross lack of human development. According to William Blankley, senior science and technology policy analyst for the Foundation for Research Development, there is much R&D activity by the new government, there are signs of growing innovation, and South Africa came th out of 45 countries on "total expenditure on R&D" in the World Competitiveness Yearbook 1998.

He believes that R&D spending estimates are "conservative and reflect South Africa's negative perceptions of itself in 'hard areas' such as science and the economy". Lack of data on research, human resources and education "tend to fuel these negative perceptions", he adds. South Africa's R&D spending, Mr Blankley says, is in the same league as Argentina's and Mexico's - about $1 billion in 1996. But the country has a diversified portfolio. "We are strong in agricultural and natural resource research, and in engineering and manufacturing R&D."

Unpublished data from a continuing national audit of research and technology estimates 1995's total R&D investment to have been R3.2 billion (Pounds 300 million). "This is 25 per cent higher than the R2.6 billion reported in the last R&D survey carried out in South Africa for 1993-94," writes Khotso Mokhele, head of the FRD and first president of the Academy of Science of South Africa, in Unesco's World Science Report 1998. Nearly two-thirds of all of research spending is from the private sector - 60.7 per cent of the 1993-94 total, according to government figures. The private sector conducted 52.7 per cent of all research, compared with 31.2 per cent by the government and 16 per cent by tertiary institutions. Funds go overwhelmingly to sciences, which received 89 per cent of total spending in 1993, the FRD says. By far the most is spent on engineering, which received 40 per cent of the R2.6 billion, followed by agriculture, biology and forestry, and technology and medicine. Interestingly, spending on physics doubled to R148 million in four years to 1993, and funds are being poured into technology. Business invested heavily in the chemicals and petrochemicals, medical and electrical and electronics sectors.

Mr Blankley found signs of growing innovation in manufacturing in a survey of 244 firms he conducted with the University of Cape Town's Industrial Strategy Project last year. Spending on innovation and R&D spending was higher than expected: innovation accounted for 4.9 per cent of firms' turnover, R&D 1.6 per cent. More than three in four firms said they were "more innovative than three years previously". Mr Blankley believes that R&D is getting stronger, and there is greater awareness of its importance in an open economy. But better understanding is needed of the relationship between R&D and innovation, Mr Blankley says, and "few firms or institutions can continue to do R&D for its own sake - there have to be social and economic outcomes and innovations". This is a "healthy trend", he says.

The new government has clearly boosted interest in research. Soon after coming to power in 1994, it created a Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. This gave science and technology its most prominent representation ever in cabinet, Dr Mokhele writes. Science and technology got a cabinet committee to coordinate research across state departments and a parliamentary sub-committee.

In 1996, a white paper on science and technology was published. It proposed a National System of Innovation - a set of institutions, organisations and policies that work to pursue common socioeconomic goals - and created several new instruments. One is a National Advisory Council on Innovation, which Mr Blankley believes will have "far-reaching effects on the direction of research and innovation". Another is the National Research Foundation, which pulls research council funding into one agency providing competitive grants.

The national audit is assessing the science and technology system, and a foresight exercise is identifying areas important to development. The trade and industry department is investigating the competitiveness of local industrial clusters with a view to developing them. Government research activity, Mr Blankley says, has created greater awareness in the public sector that the government expects a return on its R&D investments. "Higher education institutions are being more careful about how they manage their R&D resources. Nearly all institutions now have directors of research." The new policy apparatus "will provide one of two templates for science- and technology-led development in South Africa", Dr Mokhele writes.

The other is an inherited science and technology infrastructure built after the second world war to support industrialisation and counter international isolation during apartheid. It includes 21 universities, 15 technikons, nine parastatal research councils and many specialist institutes.

There are also efforts to develop South Africa's human resources. Enrolment at technikons has grown by 22.3 per cent a year and at universities by 5.6 per cent a year since the mid-1980s. However, a major problem remains the neglect of science and mathematics in sub-standard schools, which means that three in four graduates are from the social sciences or humanities.

The new South Africa that is striving to develop has still to live with the legacy of its past. But it seems the country is growing more confident of the future. Research spending on "future studies" plummeted from nearly R300 million in 1989 to a paltry R14 million in 1993.

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