SOUTH AFRICA: Research chairs to counter brain drain

A dwindling pool of senior academics has prompted South Africa to create 210 university research chairs in the next three years, and to woo top foreign scientists in an attempt to reverse the brain drain.

By the end of this year there will be 72 new chairs, boosting research capacity and efforts to produce the 6000 PhDs annually that the country needs to remain competitive – but which it is nowhere close to achieving.

Addressing a launch in Cape Town of the South African Research Chairs Initiative, Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena said that with 21 new chairs announced last December and a further 51 to be awarded by the end of 2007, South Africa was on course to achieve its target of 210 research chairs.

As part of the government’s strategy to “reverse the brain drain into brain gain”, Mangena said a third of researchers were recruited from outside South African universities. They included countries such as Germany, Sweden, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya.

“A handful are ex-South Africans whom we have enticed back into the country,” Mangena said, adding that this augured well for South Africa’s attempts to develop a cadre of high-calibre researchers and scientists who could hold their own nationally and internationally.

It would also boost the production of PhDs which “features prominently among our priorities”. The 21 research chairs appointed last December are already supporting 59 masters and PhD students, and the numbers are expected to rise significantly as more researchers are appointed.

Sixteen of this year’s 51 research chairs went to scholars who were new to higher education and were recruited from abroad or from South African industry and science councils. They were selected from among 146 applicants.

More than a third of the chairs went to black scholars, representing some progress towards affirmative action targets which demand that 60% of awards go to black people and 50% to women. Disciplines awarded chairs ranged from policy, poverty and inequality to astrophysics and space science, nano-phototonics and immunology of infectious diseases.

“In future, we want to see each chair supporting a large and vibrant academic group,” Mangena said. “We are convinced that this is the only way we will be able to reach commensurate global targets for PhD-trained knowledge workers.”

South Africa must urgently grow its production of PhDs, according to National Research Foundation vice-president Professor Albert van Jaarsveld. He calculates the country needs to produce 6,000 science and technology PhDs a year to remain competitive in the growing global knowledge economy – five times its current graduation of around 1,200 PhDs a year.

Van Jaarsveld told the Johannesburg Press Club that scientific output from South Africa had stagnated over the past dozen years, and that the pool of researchers was ageing at a “hugely disconcerting” rate. Nearly half of all research papers were now produced by scholars over the age of 50 – way up from the 15% or so of the 1990s.

Affirmative action policies have encouraged the public and private sectors to offer high salaries to attract black graduates, making it difficult for universities to compete for the top black scholars. The same policies make it difficult for institutions to employ white scholars. Also, black scholars have complained of an ‘alienating’ Western culture at the country’s top universities. This has made it hard for the institutions to retain black academics.

South Africa’s government and private sectors are pumping money into research, with spending set to reach 1% of GDP next year. But the Education Department has slashed higher education’s share of the education budget to 0.6% of GDP at the same time as student numbers have soared.

University enrolments nearly doubled in the dozen years of democracy to 735,000. That has meant that the same number of academics are teaching more and researching less while universities are struggling to graduate a growing number of students from sub-standard poor schools, especially in mathematics and science.

The National Research Foundation will double its research funding to more than R3 billion (US$435 million) next year, including scholarships for postgraduate students. Currently South Africa produces only 23 PhDs per million students, according to Van Jaarsveld – way below South Korea’s 150 and Australia’s 200 or more per million.