Government aims to double R&D spending by 2020

The government aims to increase the percentage of gross domestic product or GDP spent on research and development to 1.5% by 2020 – still below the average spend of 2.4% for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD, but more than double the latest figure of 0.77%.

The announcement was made by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor during the recent launch of the South African National Survey of Research and Experimental Development which shows that R29.34 billion (US$2.2 billion) was used for R&D in 2014-15, up by 8.1% from R25.66 billion (US$1.9 billion) for 2013-14.

“Our aim in government is to double the investment in R&D from the 2014-15 figure of 0.77% to 1.5% of GDP. That means doubling the 2014-15 investment of R29 billion to roughly R60 billion a year by 2020,” said Pandor at the launch.

The survey is used as a key indicator of the size, growth and composition of R&D expenditure, and the human capital devoted to R&D.

Pandor said the latest R&D survey shows an improving outlook for R&D investment but this improvement took place against a slowing rate of GDP growth that was 2.2% in 2013 and 1.5% in 2014.

This is the fourth consecutive year that gross expenditure on research and development, or GERD, has increased in real terms, after a decline in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

In constant 2010 rand terms, GERD, at R23.3 billion in 2014-15, has almost reached the peak of R24.1 billion that was achieved in 2008-09.

Signs of recovery

Pandor said business investment in R&D was starting to see some recovery from R11.78 billion in 2013-14 to R13.29 billion in 2014-15. “We wish it was robust, but it is showing signs of recovery,” she said.

The government remains the largest funder of R&D at 43.9% of GERD, as it has been since 2006-07, followed by the business sector at 40.8%, foreign sources at 12.2% and other local sources at 3.1%.

The minister said the continued year-on-year increases in government funding for R&D is particularly important in sustaining the R&D spending and performance of science councils and higher education institutions.

Foreign funding to science councils and the government decreased in 2014-15. The proportion of R&D in science councils that is funded by foreign funds was 8.6%, whereas it formed 10.6% in 2013-14.

The 2014-15 expenditure on R&D for seven science councils established through Acts of Parliament was R5 billion and for higher education institutions, including both private and public, was R8.3 billion.

Aside from tracking the number of publications, Pandor said, researchers have been unable to track the outputs, outcomes and socio-economic impacts of the investment in public research institutions.

The survey revealed that most R&D undertaken (48.8%) is applied research, defined as original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge but directed towards a specific aim or objective, while basic research, defined as experimental work mainly undertaken to acquire new knowledge without any particular application in view, constitutes 24.3%.

Limited growth in researcher numbers

Indicators for R&D personnel show that full-time researchers per 1,000 employed have stagnated between 1.4 and 1.6 for the past 10 years.

“This indicates that greater effort is required to expand the researcher workforce, which has grown at an equivalent rate to that of overall employment in the economy,” the minister said.

The number of researchers, by headcount, in the system increased from 42,828 in 2012-13 to 48,479 in 2014-15. This includes researchers and other personnel directly supporting R&D.

About 84% of the increase in R&D personnel was postgraduate students. Pandor said the Department of Science and Technology attributes the increase to the South African Research Chairs Initiative and postgraduate bursaries, which are helping to expand the pipeline of researchers.

The survey shows that there were 18,724 female researchers in 2012-13 and this has risen to 21,471 in 2014-15. Female researchers account for 44% of researchers, which puts South Africa among some of the world’s most gender-transformed countries. The latest (2012) OECD data puts France at 25.6%, Germany at 26.8%, and Russia at 37.4%.

Intellectual property

Welcoming the publication of the first South African National Survey of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer at Publicly Funded Research Institutions, Pandor said the management of technologies, patent families, trade mark families, registered design families and new patent applications filed had increased more rapidly than the increase in research expenditure.

“This is clearly good news. Between 2011 and 2014, on average 100 new technologies were added annually to the portfolio managed by universities and science councils,” she said.

In addition, 45 start-up companies were formed to commercialise the institutions’ technology, 73% of which were based on publicly funded intellectual property.