Pandor announces 2017 science budget, SKA ambitions still on track

Sarah Wild

South Africa would dedicate R128,7-million to international co-operation and relations to secure partnerships in the international domain and create research opportunities for its researchers, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor told a media briefing in Cape Town on 16 May 2017.

A major reason for this was to make up for government funding shortfalls and currency volatility. The Department of Science and Technology, the major funder of science, technology and research in the country, received R7.5-billion for the 2017-18 financial year. While the figure is constant in nominal terms, it has not kept up with inflation trends and with the country’s weakening currency.

“The funding is not yet at the level we want to see it,” Pandor said ahead of her department’s budget vote in Parliament in the afternoon. She had previously set an ambitious target of 1.5% of gross domestic product to be spent on research and development by 2020. At the moment, that percentage is about 0.76%.

To boost spending on research. Pandor said that her department was pushing collaboration outside as well as inside the country.

“We are pursuing a number of initiatives in partnership with the private sector and more and more we are drawing closer to other spheres of government that do no have science, technology and innovation (STI) as a focus area, and [we are] encouraging them to fund STI,” she said.

Despite the funding squeeze, South Africa’s radio astronomy ambitions are surviving the pinch. The department would allocate R 693-million to the National Research Foundation to ensure the completion of the MeerKat, South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) precursor. The SKA will be the largest radio telescope on Earth, and will be hosted by South Africa and Australia. Construction on the SKA is expected to start late next year.

But the main focus of the department’s 2017-18 budget would be “human capital development and the continuous modernisation of research infrastructure”.

The budget, which will guide the department’s spending priorities,

  • Research development and support: R4.3-billion

This kitty funds most of the country’s academic researchers, and is instrumental in the training of postgraduate students. According to Pandor, in 2015-16, 4,315 researchers were awarded research grants through the National Research Foundation. This number is expected to creep up in 2017-18 to 4,500.

Also, in 2017-18, the National Research Foundation is expected to fund 32,792 postgraduate students. The department has a fairly strict policy about how these bursaries are awarded: 80% must go to black students, 55% to women, and 4% to people with disabilities.

  • Socio-economic partnerships: R1.6-billion

This is one of the department’s five priority areas, and is the most poorly defined. This funding ranges from developing policy and strategy for R&D, and creating indicators for the country to measure its STI performance, through to developing technologies to tackle poverty and create jobs.

  • Technology Innovation: R1.1-billion

This money goes to the likes of the Technology Innovation Agency, tasked with taking technologies from idea to marketable product, and the National Intellectual Property Management Office, which protects intellectual property developed using public funds. Nipmo specifically gets an allocation of R36-million. This kitty also funds research and skills development in focus areas, like space science, renewable energy. and the bioeconomy.

  • International co-operation and resources: R128.7-million

While the department’s eye is almost certainly on using some of this money to coax foreign countries into investing in STI in South Africa, Pandor also said that it would be used to promote capacity building on the continent. to develop Africa’s knowledge base.

  • Administration: R383.7-million

Pandor described this allocation as “meagre”, saying it mainly went to ensuring clean audits and that its entities complied with governance and accountability legislation. The department is one of the few in South Africa’s national government that continues to receive a clean audit.

In terms of individual agencies, all of them got more money, but some did better than others:

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – R916-million (R872 million in 2016-17);

The National Research Foundation – R926-million (R883 million)

The Human Sciences Research Council – R305-million (R290 million)

The Technology Innovation Agency – R397-million (R382 million)

The South African National Space Agency – R131-million (R125-million)

The Academy of Science of South Africa – R25-million (R23-million)

Despite a tight budget, Pandor said that there was good news: she no longer had to convince her government colleagues that STI was a worthwhile investment. “In 2009, it was very difficult; colleagues were constantly questioning the wisdom of investing in this area,” Pandor said. “I no longer have to convince anybody that STI is important.”

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