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South Africa's research system is faltering due to financial woes

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South Africa's research system is faltering due to financial woes

Sarah Wild

08 Dec 2017

4min min read
  • Research and development projects
  • Finance

The latest survey shows government remains the main funder of research and development. However, it is unlikely to meet its 2020 target due to increasing economic pressure, writes Sarah Wild


t is difficult to justify research’s hefty price tag in the face of widespread poverty. Research is expensive, and developing countries – particularly those on the African continent – arguably have many more urgent demands on the national purse. South Africa, a continental heavy-weight when it comes to science and technology, is no different. And state drivers of research and development (R&D) often have to justify why they fiercely guard their horde of state treasure. 

Amazingly, South Africa’s science minister Naledi Pandor has managed to do that, although government is still struggling to coax business back to the R&D table. 

The latest South African National Survey of Research and Experimental Development shows that government was once again the main driver of R&D in the country – mainly through universities. Business is often a major driver of new product and service development in more developed economies. 

"The South African research system is “essentially going sideways”, says a policy specialist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. It is stagnating under the pressure of a struggling economy."

The southern African country spent R32.3-billion on R&D in 2015-16, an increase on the previous year. This was driven by government, which accounted for more than half of the money spent on R&D. In constant Rand values, business’s contribution declined for the first time since 2012-13.

The South African research system is “essentially going sideways”, says a policy specialist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. It is stagnating under the pressure of a struggling economy.

Although the country continued to increase its percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on R&D, now at 0.8% which is its highest level since 2009/10, that was in large part due to the dramatic slowing of South Africa’s GDP growth. 

Pandor had previously set a target of 1.5% of GDP to be spent on R&D by 2020, something which seems increasingly unlikely given the current economic climate. For some context, countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on average spend about 2.4% of their substantially larger GDPs on R&D. This percentage of GDP spend on R&D has become something of a symbolic number; it is something to strive towards, and something to entice further investment in R&D. The more money a country – and its companies and universities – spends on R&D, the more competitive it becomes when compared to other countries that are not spending that money. It has been linked to increased economic development and competitiveness. South Africa, with its social and economic problems, is desperate for that edge to combat poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

So the South African R&D system and policy makers have become fixated on this number.

However, this low percentage is continent-wide. In the 2014 African Innovation Outlook, the most comprehensive and recent report on continent-wide R&D, the authors write that the 1% target set by the African Union still remains elusive for African nations.

Continental trend

South Africa, where business was once the major driver of R&D, is now part of a continental trend in which government is the largest funder. In Ghana, for example, their government foots the bill for 68.3% of its R&D. However, while it is concerning that business is reticent to invest in R&D in South Africa, the decline must be seen in the context of South Africa’s substantially larger GDP: while business’ proportion is declining, it is still spending a great deal at R13.8-billion.

South Africa, according to the African Innovation Outlook, is also the least reliant on international funding. But Neo Molotja, R&D survey leader at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa, says that they are not able to give a breakdown of which international companies, organisations or countries fund this research in South Africa.


However, a major weakness laid bare by the R&D survey is that South Africa’s core researcher numbers have not increased, says the policy expert.

On the surface, South Africa’s number of researchers increased – both by headcount and full-time equivalents (FTEs are used to add up the contribution of people who work part time). Total researcher headcount increased from 45 935 in 2013-14 and 48 479 in 2014-15 to 51 877 in 2015-16. That is a dramatic jump of almost 3 400 researchers. Most of these are to due an increase in postgraduate students and post-doctoral researchers; however, that jump masks a decline in full-time equivalents employed as researchers within universities. Within universities, FTE researchers, not including postgraduates, declined from 5 097.7 in 2014-15 to 4 701.9 in 2015-16. 

This is the first time FTE researchers has declined in the last decade.

While it is difficult to ascribe direct causes to this, the South African university system has been struggling with historic chronic underfunding, a situation which has been exacerbated by the constrained fee increases. 

But until the economy improves, R&D budgets will continue to feel the squeeze. The Department of Science and Technology, a major funder of research in South Africa, got R7.5-bilion for the 2017-18 financial year. While the figure is constant in nominal terms, it has not kept up with inflation or with the country’s weak currency. 

So while the 2015-16 R&D survey tells of a research system in stagnation, constrained by available finances, the results for the next two years will make for much grimmer reading. In such a tight economy, the money has to come from somewhere, and the promises of future benefits will be pit against urgent realities. 

(Main image: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images )