Research funding cuts – A shift in priorities?

The recent announcement by the National Research Foundation of cuts to its funding for rated researchers has raised concerns about the value being placed on research and support for top researchers in South Africa.

“Cutting incentive funding for rated researchers suggests that supporting top researchers is no longer a priority,” said Mamokgethi Phakeng, deputy vice-chancellor of research at the University of Cape Town. “My concern is the negative impact this may have on our national system.”

Phakeng was responding to the announcement by South Africa’s National Research Foundation or NRF of a “revised model” for the Incentive Funding for Rated Researchers Programme effective from the beginning of the 2018 academic year.

According to the announcement, the revision was “due to financial constraints and the need for the NRF to re-align its investments to more strategically advance its mandate” of promoting and supporting research “in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology, including indigenous knowledge, and thereby contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of all South Africans”.

Ratings were first implemented in the 1980s as a performance measure to inform the awarding of grants.

The Incentive Funding for Rated Researchers Programme, which attaches specific monetary amounts to the rating categories with the aim of incentivising 'excellent research', was introduced in 2008 with five categories of rating eligible for receiving awards: A – leading international researchers; B – internationally acclaimed researchers; C – established researchers; P – prestigious awards; Y – promising young researchers.

The implementation of the programme saw the number of rated researchers increase from 1,684 in 2008 to 3,869 in 2017 and the funding increase from R72 million (US$5.3 million) to R158.5 million (US$11.7 million) over the same period.

Lack of sustainability

“It’s been a runaway success,” said Gansen Pillay, deputy chief executive of the NRF, but it's proved unsustainable in the long term. “We are working with two variables: the number of researchers and the financial resources available. With the increasing number of researchers, it gets to a point where it becomes unsustainable.”

This is especially so as government hasn’t come to the party and the annual parliamentary grant to the NRF has failed to match the increase in rated researchers and the cost of funding them. Molapo Qhobela, the NRF CEO, was reported as saying the grant had declined, on average, three percentage points per year in real terms over the past five years.

“We were faced with two options,” said Pillay. “Do you allow the ship to sink or do you take some mitigating measures and help keep the boat afloat?”

Keeping the boat afloat has seen funding cuts across all the rating categories and, in some cases, as much as 90% in grant value. According to a report in Nature, the top-rated researchers will be hit hardest, with those rated Y and C less so.

Newly A-rated researchers will see their funding decline from up to R100,000 a year over five years to a one-off payment of R50,000 in the first year of their rating. Newly Y-rated emerging researchers will receive R100,000 from the NRF over two years, instead of R40,000 a year over five years.

From 2019, only P-rated researchers will get an annual sum of R50,000. Those in other categories will receive a one-off payment of R30,000 if they retain their rating. If they are newly rated or improve their rating, they will receive a one-off payment of R50,000.

However, according to Madikwe Mabotha, spokesperson for the Department of Higher Education and Training, top-rated researchers “will still receive the lion’s share of research support funding through the various NRF funding mechanisms”.

He also downplayed any likely impact on postgraduate research at South African universities.

Variety of funding mechanisms

“The NRF has many different mechanisms for funding and supporting research which support young up and coming researchers. The DHET [Department of Higher Education and Training] also incentivises research though subsidies in accordance with the research outputs policy.”

But Mabotha acknowledged “more investment in research and innovation is required to support knowledge production and to drive innovation within the country to ensure inclusive growth and prosperity”.

According to Lunga Ngqengelele, spokesperson for the Department of Science and Technology, the parent body of the NRF, there had been ongoing discussions with the NRF “around general cost containment and sustainability approaches in the context of shrinking budgets in real terms”.

“These revisions of R158.5 million must be understood within the context of the overall NRF funding portfolio for established researchers which has seen an investment of R1.2 billion in 2016-17, and another investment of R1.197 billion in postgraduate students and emerging researchers.

"This re-prioritisation will enable the NRF to provide funds to support young exceptional researchers with Y and P ratings, increase the funds available for the competitive research grants and increase the value of postgraduate student bursaries,” said Ngqengelele.

That cuts were in the offing was no surprise to Zeblon Vilakazi, deputy vice-chancellor of research and postgraduate affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“As the amount of rated researchers increased and new chairs were created, it was anticipated that at some stage this would be reviewed.”

Such a review had come under discussion at a 2016 Research Administrators’ Workshop and again at the Deputy Vice-Chancellors Research Forum in June this year.

An element of surprise

However, this month’s announcement and its January 2018 implementation still caught him by surprise. “We would have appreciated it if we could have seen this coming. Coming this late in the year we are now having to sharpen our pencils to try to minimise the impact.”

Vilakazi said he was most worried about the effects of the cuts on “emerging researchers and the bedrock of C-rated scholars where there are more diverse racial and gender profiles. A and B should be okay; they are well established researchers and many receive funding from elsewhere.”

The impact at the University of Cape Town or UCT looks to be significant.

“Fifty-six per cent of our rated researchers depend solely on the NRF incentive funding,” said Phakeng. “Which means that come 2018, they will have to compete for funding by applying for competitive grants for rated researchers, which is now the only one the NRF is making available for rated researchers.”

She foresees the cuts having a “serious lasting negative impact on research activity, outputs and postgraduate training” at UCT.

“Many of our rated researchers have relied on this grant to help them support postgraduate students and plan research activities over a rating cycle. It will also have serious implications for UCT with regards to maintaining and growing its number of NRF rated researchers. Many researchers won’t see the value of applying for a rating, especially because outside of South Africa an NRF rating means very little.”

The late announcement of the cuts has added to the pressure. “We are now working hard to minimise the impact on our researchers and students. This is not easy given the tough financial times we are currently experiencing.”