Research – Creative responses in a hostile environment

“When the students are at the gate, it’s too late for polite discussion. We need a realistic acknowledgement of what we confront,” said Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor at a recent Research and Innovation Dialogue. Challenges to research were laid bare and hard decisions made – including the need for universities to specialise.

Pandor told the Universities South Africa, or USAf, dialogue held in Johannesburg from 7-8 April that time-consuming talk was over. Universities had too little to do with an outside environment that could overpower them.

“We have got all these grievances out there. We are going to cause problems if we don’t address transformation. We have to be bold. We need to think beyond ourselves. But we mustn’t beat ourselves down, we have good people; we must be critical, but with intention of finding solutions.”

With a tertiary sector that was volatile, it was important to look at the consequences and implications for research and innovation, said Professor Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, in her welcoming address to delegates at the dialogue themed “Leveraging Research and Innovation for South Africa’s Prosperity”.

The objectives of the dialogue were to consider initiatives by government and other bodies in support of research and innovation in the university sector and to draw up a set of actions and commitments to be implemented both collectively and separately by government and universities with a view to realising research and development, or R&D, priorities.

De la Rey, who is also chair of the USAf Research and Innovation Strategy Group, provided a context for the dialogue.

“Vice-chancellors’ jobs have changed fundamentally in the last few months,” she said, in reference to the impact on universities of student driven protest campaigns including the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements.

The sometimes violent protests have led to campuses being shut for extended periods and the subsequent reallocation of government education funding.

“South Africa depends on a good, healthy supply of a high level of skills,” said de la Rey. “If the academic year is compromised across institutions it means that next year there will be fewer undergraduates going out into the economy.” There would also be fewer publications and less patents.

“The challenges facing the sector are very serious – such as funding and transformation. These are deep-seated issues that need to be addressed.”

Sustainable Development Goals

Such challenges were set against a backdrop of future development crystallised in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, intended to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030. The opening session of the dialogue was about the role of research and innovation in achieving the SDGs.

De la Rey said there was nothing new in the SDGs but the “challenges are so complex and so large that they can’t be tackled by singular approaches”. There was a need for more collective action – “such as the social sciences linking with the natural sciences; such a linkage has the potential to be a game changer”.

However, South Africa’s university system still operates in the “old way” with separate disciplines, schools and faculties, which poses difficulties when it comes to collaboration.

Professor Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa or ASSAf, said it was “easy at postgraduate level to have a multidisciplinary world but it tends to be superficial. How do we make knowledge contribution useful? Do we need to do this at undergraduate level or only at postgraduate level?”

Diab said the SDGs “fully embrace universality and set the development agenda for rich and poor countries”, and that research and innovation were key drivers of sustainable development and essential to all the SDGs.

“Whether it be addressing hunger or developing more vaccines to ensure healthy lives, research and innovation is the key to a sustainable future.”

“Scientific knowledge can translate to national policies. Assembling evidence provides government with recommendations that can result in policies in support of the SDGs.”

‘Decolonise and Africanise’

Dr Siphamandla Zondi, executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, took a more philosophical approach. Referring to student protests, he said discussions could not take place “without acknowledging the uprisings of 2015”.

Zondi highlighted two priorities for South African universities: “to decolonise and Africanise”. Universities might be sited in Africa but they were often Westernised universities that happened to be in Africa. South Africa must see itself in relation to Africa – and Africa to the rest of the world.

While agreeing with Zondi in principle Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and chair of USAf, posed the question: “How do we Africanise in a world that is globalising?”

In a globalising world you cannot exist in a vacuum, said Eva Ziegert, section head of education, science and research at the German Embassy in Pretoria, emphasised the necessity of international collaboration.

“You can’t have closed knowledge groups. You must step out and engage with civil society and with politics. Science itself must be sustainable – and include more women. We can’t go on playing with half a team.”

Research funding in South Africa

Despite the clear need for action there was a sense of frustration during the session on research and innovation funding in South Africa in which Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of the Department of Science and Technology or DST, presented “The Review of the White Paper for Science and Technology and a Decadal Plan”.

This was an update of an ongoing review of the 1996 white paper on education and training which provided a glimpse of government thinking on how universities could enhance government’s response to socio-economic challenges.

A major concern was lack of coordination and Mjwara noted that the ministerial review committee set up in 2012 “recommends giving the DST some power in coordinating the sector. At present there is no single conductor for this orchestra; as we go forward who is going to be the conductor?”

Another question was around funding grants. Should there be a single grant agency instead of the several already in existence?

Mjwara said there was also a need for increased business participation in R&D, for the centralisation of data and an institutional landscape review – the latter now underway. “We need to be able to monitor the landscape from a bird’s eye view which currently we are not able to do.”

Professor Frikkie van Niekerk, deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and technology at North-West University and an RISG member, said there needed to be “a sense of urgency” in drafting the review. “We have been discussing this for the last 15 years. And now we have the current political situation to contend with.”

If nothing else the government presentation threw the ball back into the university’s court, where it was neatly fielded by Professor Anastassios Pouris, USAf researcher and director of the University of Pretoria’s Institute for Technological Innovation.

Among his recommendations Pouris said USAf should “institutionalise advocacy activities” and disseminate evidence of the value of universities for innovation, the economy and society. Pouris also said South Africa should take a lead from Brazil and use levies and small special taxes to protect research and innovation expenditures from budgetary variations.

“Given limited resources we have to make hard choices,” said Pouris. “Government funding will always be below what it should be.”

At present, government is the largest funder of R&D at 45.4% and business the second largest, contributing 38.3%, according to Professor Francis Petersen, deputy vice-chancellor for institutional innovation at the University of Cape Town.

“Most of the funding for R&D from government goes to higher education and science councils while that from business stays in business. But business investment in R&D has declined steadily.”

Petersen said the decline in business investment in R&D should see a “re-emergence of a different kind of collaboration. Not necessarily about more funding but about opportunities for innovation. Crisis lends itself to opportunity such as different levels of collaboration – it’s been done in mining where we have seen the gold and platinum sectors come together.”

More international engagement

He added that there was a need to grow South Africa’s international engagement. “If we pick individuals correctly they would come. We need to enable that space far better than we have.”

Adam Habib agreed and said it was necessary to become fully transnational on the African continent – “we must construct relationships with African institutions. We treat Africans like the Europeans treat us.”

He advocated teaming up with other African institutions on an equal relationship basis. “We have to change. We have to stop seeing ourselves as institutions but as institutional citizens in a higher education community.”

This was emphasised by Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor. “Universities in the countries of the Southern African Development Community are denuded of students, so why not create a SADC programme? Why are we so posh we can’t go to the rest of the continent?”

The move to internationalisation was a constant theme and Chief Mabizela, chief director of policy and development support at the Department of Higher Education and Training, presented a draft policy framework on higher education internationalisation.

Mabizela acknowledged that foreign students and academics from elsewhere in Africa encountered huge problems with visas and other border controls. He said regulations to deal with this would be incorporated into the policy and that the Department of Home Affairs would be involved in creating the policy framework. The policy would incorporate the offering of collaborative or joint degrees.

Need for specialisation

In an environment of scarcity, universities must focus their mandates more effectively, according to Habib. “We can’t do everything at our individual institutions, we are going to have to specialise. We have to accept that we must collectively compete with the world but not be the best at institutional level.”

Something highlighted by Pandor: “Take water research: I go to a university one day and they tell me about what they are doing and I realise that I heard the very same at another institution the day before. We are doing something, but there is no clarity on outputs. There is poor co-ordination between government and the universities.”

Speaking on the challenges presented by research and innovation, Pandor said: "We need to acknowledge we’re working in an environment with a number of development imperatives that have to change South Africa and Africa. We can’t stay where we are as a forum."

There had been a failure on the part of the South African academic community to meet the challenges of the SDGs and their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals. “I hope in 15 years’ time we are not reiterating the same development goals.”

Pandor acknowledged that there was inadequate government funding: “0.76% is just not good enough for our ambitions.”

“It is also a worry that in the last seven years since the financial crisis there has been less investment from the private sector, but there is a slight improvement at the moment and we need to capitalise on that.

“Universities are not as linked to industry as they should be. We have to improve our communication of knowledge,” said Pandor. “There have to be spin-off industries and companies. At Cambridge there are 1,600 spin-off companies; MIT has 1,000. There is too much inward looking research in our institutions.”

With regard to human resource development, Pandor said: “We are not doing enough to make black and women researchers become excellent researchers.” She cited an award ceremony where all the recipients were white.

“We appear to reify something that existed previously instead of creating something new. It’s embarrassing to go to award ceremonies that don’t reflect our population.”

But Pandor, a previous minister of education, was also keen to accentuate the positive. “In South Africa we have a foundation we can build on: good quality institutions, science councils and so on. Other countries don’t even have such institutions.”

She said the government, and her department in particular, was committed to research and innovation, adding that South Africa already had a well-established research system that provided a platform for further improvement.

There were also institutional “precursors to world excellence” such as the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa and several national facilities “including our lodestar, the Square Kilometre Array. There will be many developments coming out of that in terms of software and hardware”.

But Pandor didn’t minimise the challenge: “It’s a collective challenge we all have to share. There is a need for joint and common commitment.”


The two-day dialogue resulted in a number of recommendations and actions including that USAf develops a communications strategy to raise awareness of the challenges universities face with research and innovation.

Others were to strengthen transdisciplinary research; to investigate alternative funding models and private sector partnerships; to grow international partnerships; and to incentivise research collaboration and establish a consortium between universities to boost internationalisation together with pro-active participation in international opportunities.