SOUTH AFRICA: Doubt over R&D spending of 1% GDP

South Africa's goal of raising its research and development expenditure to 1% of gross domestic product by next year might not be achieved. Figures released last week showed that while R&D spending grew in volume by nearly 13% in 2007-08, it dropped from 0.95% to 0.93% of GDP - the first decline since 2002.

The nation recorded a steady increase in investment in R&D from 0.60% in 1997 to 0.95% in 2006-07, before the unexpected decline. The figures for 2008-09 will be known next year.

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor told a media briefing in Pretoria last week that she was investigating the reasons. Last year her predecessor, Mosibudi Mangena, stated the country was on track to spend at least 1% of GDP on science and technology - a goal first proposed by African intellectuals in 1979.

Pandor said investment in R&D in 2007-08 increased by 12.7% to R18.6 billion (US$2.5 billion), up from R16.5 billion in 2006-07. But with economic growth at 5%, the R&D spending hike represented a smaller percentage of GDP. The Minister was concerned why the 0.2% decline had not been anticipated and why plans to guarantee meeting the target had not been made.

She said her department would look at what changes were needed to ensure South Africa consistently maintained increases in R&D investment - regarded as an indication of a country's competitiveness. Emerging trends needed to be identified and appropriate policy responses formulated if the country was to meet its 1% of GDP target, she added.

Pandor previously pointed out that: "Countries experiencing long-term growth are those that continue to fund research and new ideas generation even in the hardest times [and] it is vitally important for South Africa to continue its support for innovative research and cutting edge commercialisation."

More positively, she said South Africa had spent more than most other middle or low-income countries on R&D, outpacing India's 0.80% and Argentina's 0.51% of GDP. But countries such as China, with 1.49% of GDP spent on R&D, and Russia (1.12%) were far ahead while Sweden, Japan and Korea all spent more than 3% of GDP on R&D in 2007-08, with Sweden at the top with 3.6%.

The R&D survey was conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council's Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators, in line with guidelines provided by the OECD's Frascati Manual and in consultation with Statistics South Africa and international experts in the field.

Most R&D spending is on research in engineering sciences, which accounts for 22.5% of the total, followed by the natural sciences (20.4%). Medical and health sciences, and information communication technology, both account for 14.0% of R&D.

The private sector continues to perform the bulk of research and its proportion grew from 55.9% to 57.7% of total R&D. The government, including the science councils, financed 21.7% of total R&D, followed by higher education (19.4%) and the non-profit sector (1.2%). Interestingly, the survey found that nearly 11% of South Africa's R&D was financed from abroad.

Pandor was upbeat about research personnel numbers which she is keen to expand. South Africa had 31,352 full-time equivalent R&D workers in 2007-08. Some 62% of these people - 19,320 - were researchers, up by 4% over 2006-07.

According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics, the number of researchers in South Africa grew by nearly a third over the five years to 2008. Two in five researchers were women, a proportion higher than most other countries.