Survey shows failure to reach R&D target of 1% of GDP

South Africa needs to escalate its expenditure on research and development and increase its international competitiveness in science and innovation, according to Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom. Disappointingly, the lofty goal of raising R&D spending to 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010 has not been achieved.

Rather, the National Survey of Research and Experimental Development 2009-2010, released earlier this month, showed that South Africa had invested some R21 billion (US$2.3 billion) in R&D over the period, translating into only 0.87% of GDP in 2009-10.

This was the third consecutive year that research funding as a percentage of GDP had dropped, with the ratio in 2007-08 being 0.93%, falling to 09.2% in 2008-09. And with the percentage heading in the wrong direction, there is serious doubt over whether the department will meet its target of 2% GDP spending on research by 2018.

Hanekom said that despite public sector expenditure – including government departments, higher education and science councils – rising by R1.1 billion, this was insufficient to offset a R1.4 billion drop in business and non-profit organisation R&D during economically tight times.

In all, the business sector spent R11.1 billion on R&D: 53.2% of total spending and a 9.7% decline on the previous year. Higher education spent R5.1 billion, the government R4.5 billion and the non-profit sector R189 million. International funding for R&D increased marginally, to R2.5 billion.

The survey collects R&D funding data from various sources: the level of expenditure on R&D performed by institutional sectors, and data on human resources devoted to R&D. The number of researchers in South Africa has been around 19,000 for the past three surveys, while the number of women actively involved in R&D has risen from 36% in 2001 to 42%.

Hanekom believed the findings “mirror the global trends” of slowing growth in R&D investments around the world during 2009 and 2010 as the financial crisis took its toll.

However, further analysis also showed that South Africa did not compare favourably to other countries in the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – trading bloc and other newly industrialised Asian countries.

Brazil has been pumping money in R&D, growing from 1.1%% of GDP in 2007 to 1.17% in 2009, and in Russia the proportion rose from 1.12% in 2007 to 1.25% in 2009. China has surpassed its 1% target, while the Indian government spent 0.88% of GDP on R&D in 2008.

“The current focus of public policy to scale up investment in boosting the human resource base for science, engineering and technology, enhancing and improving publicly funded scientific facilities and creating the necessary conditions and incentives for encouraging private sector and international R&D investment, should support efforts to increase overall levels of R&D investment in South Africa," Hanekom argued.

Research impact

Hanekom said while R&D as a percentage of GDP was "an important measure of any country's move towards a more knowledge-based economy", it did not measure the quality, relevance and impact of the research being conducted.

South Africa, despite the challenge of declining R&D expenditure, had made several substantial advances in scientific research in recent years including:
  • • Biomedical stem cell technology that was the first of its kind in Africa and had the ability to grow stem cells that allowed researchers to investigate and understand diseases.
  • • Information security or fingerprint technology, a world-first structural fingerprint classifier able to correctly classify fingerprints with only partial information.
  • • An HIV-Aids vaccine, where researchers discovered an antibody capable of killing a wide range of HIV strains.
A week after the national survey results were released, Hanekom reassured deans of science from across South Africa's universities on the state of funding for human capital development – including postgraduate student support – and investment in research infrastructure for the next few years.

Addressing the National Science Deans Forum, he said R798 million had been transferred to the National Research Foundation for human capital development in the 2012-13 medium-term expenditure framework.

In the 2013-14 period, another R400 million has been made available for postgraduate support. The foundation would receive the bulk of this funding for student bursaries and researcher grant funding.

The Department of Science and Technology’s Strategy for Human Capital Development for Research Innovation and Scholarship had been gazetted for public comment.

The initiative aims to boost the size of South Africa's active research community, improve skills and results, and increase the country's international competitiveness in science and innovation. It will also guide investment in student training and researcher development, while fully maximising the outputs of established researchers.

The department has also allocated R605 million for 2013-14 for research infrastructure. The capital would fund projects that the department's infrastructure framework designated ‘priority investments’, with a portion of the money earmarked for universities to fund the national equipment programme.

“Science facilities all over South Africa, and probably worldwide, face a number of similar challenges within the higher education system. Hence, there is a need for them to share best practices and to collectively develop strategies to advance science not only in South Africa, but in the Southern African Development Community region generally,” Hanekom said.

National budget

There was some good news in the 2013-14 national budget announced by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, including medium-term funding for two new universities, in the Mpumalanga and Northern Cape provinces, and improving facilities in existing universities.

The move falls within the National Infrastructure Plan, which aims to transform South Africa's economic landscape and which has ringfenced R12.6 billion for education.

Within that policy is investment in higher education infrastructure, including upgrading lecture rooms, student accommodation, libraries and laboratories, as well as information and communications technology.

It also includes developing university towns with a combination of facilities from residences to retail, recreation and transport, and does not dismiss the potential for sharing infrastructure like libraries between universities, further education and training (FET) colleges and other educational institutions.

Currently, the initiative budgets R2.5 billion for FET infrastructure, R8 billion for various university infrastructure projects – of which R2 billion will be co-funded by universities themselves – and R2.1 billion for the new universities.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said these investments into higher education infrastructure were "well under way", with the projects expected to produce 65,742 jobs over three years.

Also on the cards are 12 new FET college campuses and extensive upgrading to two existing FET colleges.

"The infrastructure programme will yield jobs in construction-related areas such as the built environment professional space; engineering in different manifestations; construction material manufacturing and retail; retail; and other potential entrepreneurial activities," Nzimande said.

There were also opportunities for skills development through learnership programmes, apprenticeships, internships and graduate recruitment. Nzimande said he had been mandated to ensure that the construction of these projects "produced learning opportunities for people on a significant scale".