Rising research output points to ‘scientific renaissance’

South Africa could be on the verge of a 'scientific renaissance' if it sustains recent levels of research output, which in 2010 saw the country poised to make the largest contribution yet to its share of the world’s publications and move up two positions in international publications rankings.

These findings, contained in a scientometric research paper by Professor Anastassios Pouris published this month by the South African Journal of Science, represent a marked departure from earlier findings by Pouris (in 2003 and 2006) and other researchers, who identified a decline in South Africa’s science outputs during the earlier part of the decade.

The turnaround has seen South Africa more than double its publication numbers, from 3,617 in 2000 to 7,468 in 2010, and move from 35 out of 45 countries in publication rankings in 2000 to 33 a decade later.

Government interventions bearing fruit

It is evidence that government-led interventions and incentive schemes are starting to bear fruit, argues Pouris, who is director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria.

Chief among these interventions, suggests Pouris in his paper titled “Science in South Africa: The dawn of a new renaissance?”, is the new funding formula implemented by the Department of Education in the 2004-05 financial year.

The new formula saw an increase in the financial support allocated to higher education institutions according to postgraduate numbers and publication output – around R120,000 (US$14,500) for each peer-reviewed article produced by a staff member.

Significantly, the study notes, South African universities have recently started to transfer some of those financial incentives to individual researchers, with notable effects.

The paper argues that while the funding formula is “not perfect” – it fails, for example, to recognise differences in publication patterns among disciplines, and still arguably disproportionately supports some research-weak universities with development grants – it has the potential, after some adjustment, to become even more potent as a policy instrument.

“It becomes apparent that the particular policy instrument has yielded the desirable effect – an increase in the number of the country’s publications,” the author states.

Country still relatively weak in research productivity

However, despite impressive progress, the research shows that South Africa’s productivity levels still come off a relatively low base and the country is scientifically weaker in terms of publication output than leading emerging economies such as its BRICS partners Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Applying a bibliometric analysis, the study indicates, for example, that in 2010, against South Africa’s 7,468 articles, China produced 124,822 scientific publications, India 40,711, Brazil 31,274 and Russia 26,374. (These countries have far bigger populations – 50 million in South Africa against more than a billion people each in China and India, 200 million in Brazil and 142 million in Russia, so the figures do not indicate per capita research productivity.)

However, during the decade under review, South Africa managed to overtake Argentina, New Zealand, Ukraine and Hungary in the country publication rankings, although it was overtaken by Portugal and Iran in the same period.

Critical to sustain funding incentives

What the research paper makes amply clear is the critical importance of funding in sustaining the momentum behind the nation’s research productivity.

To this end, it refers to the Department of Science and Technology’s Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2011-2016 as the “pinnacle of all initiatives”, particularly the undertaking by Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor that the government aimed to spend R45 billion on research and development by 2014, reaching its target for gross expenditure of 1.5% of GDP – up from R21 billion, or 0.92% of GDP, during the 2008-09 financial year.

Other government interventions that were introduced during the decade and are likely to have had a salutary effect on research productivity include the inclusion in 2001 of social science researchers in the National Research Foundation (NRF) evaluation and rating system; the introduction by the Department of Science and Technology of a 10-year innovation plan; and the promulgation of intellectual property laws that attempt to encourage entrepreneurship and research activities in public universities.

Analysing activity indices for 2006-10 to establish productivity levels within each of the 22 major scientific disciplines, the study found that space science, immunology and social sciences had become over-emphasised in the country while disciplines such as materials science, molecular biology and engineering were under-emphasised.

The study revealed that three scientific disciplines – geosciences, molecular biology and multi-disciplinary fields – experienced a decline in their world share of publications in two periods, between 2000-04 and 2006-10, while plant and animal sciences remained static, contributing a 1.57% share of the world literature.

Analysing the relative citation index of the 22 disciplines, as an indicator of research quality for the periods 2000-04 and 2006-10, revealed that only three disciplines – computer science, molecular biology and psychiatry-psychology – appeared to have declined during the period.

Overall, the country’s relative citation index increased from 0.69 during 2000-04 to 0.88 during 2006-10.