Category: R&D funding

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.”

The top 10 things you need to know about SA’s R&D survey

The National Survey of Research and Experimental Development is a delicious smorgasbord of numbers, a snapshot of South Africa’s National System of Innovation. For those who don’t have the time to read the report (or have an aversion to deciphering the numbers), here are the highlights:

1. In 2014-15, South Africa spent R29.345-billion on research and development (R&D). That’s up from the R25.661-billion in 2013-14. At constant Rand values, it was an increase of 8%.

 

2. Almost half of this R&D cash went to labour costs.

 

3. Unfortunately, we’ve once against missed our ambitious targets. Prior to 2008, the goal was to spend 1% of gross domestic product on R&D. Government is now eyeing 1.5%, which is a bit like asking for R1,000 when you can’t scrape together R100. In 2014-15, the country as a whole — which includes government, business, and non-governmental organisations — spend 0.77% of its treasure on R&D. That is up from 0.73% the previous year.

 

4. Government has — for the third year in a row — spent more on R&D than business. Government, in this instance, also includes universities. This a problem, though, as internationally business is usually the major driver of R&D: R&D leads to new products and services, making companies more competitive.

 

5. State-owned enterprises account for 15% of business spend on R&D.

 

6. The good news is that this business investment in R&D is starting to see some recovery: from R11.783-billion in 2013-14 to R13.291-billion in 2014-15. Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said at the launch: “Business R&D spending is showing signs of recovery. We wish it was robust, but it is showing signs of recovery.”

 

7. Mining and quarrying continued to take a beating, with business’ R&D spend in this field declining by 20%.

 

8. Most of the R&D undertaken in South Africa is applied research (48.8%) rather than basic research (24.3%).

 

9. The number of researchers in the system (by headcount) continues to increase: from 42,828 in 2012-13 through to 48,479 in 2014-15, which is quite a jump. Credit for this 5,561 rise is mainly due to doctoral candidates and postdocs.

 

10. A bonus on this year’s “key findings” is that they have started to include “Female researcher numbers” as a stand alone category to tracked. Women account for 44% of researchers, which puts us up among some of the world’s most gender-transformed countries. The latest OECD data puts France at 25.6% (2012), Germany at 26.8% (2012), and Russia at 37.4%.

2017’s science budget goes up, but the money buys less

Analysis

On paper, South Africa’s science and technology budget continues to edge up. On Wednesday, finance minister Pravin Gordhan delivered his national budget to Parliament, sharing out the country’s R1.56-trillion.

The department of science and technology’s budget’s looks set to continue to increase: From R7,44-billion in 2015-16, and R7,43-billion in 2016-17,  it will be hitting R7,56-billion in 2017-18. Going further, the projected spend for 2018-19 is R7.92-billion and for 2019-20 R8.19-billion. This is far from the 1.5% of gross domestic product spent on research and development that the government is targeting (and has been targeting for a number of years now). But in an environment of high poverty and multiple demands on the state fiscus, any increase at all is — quite frankly — a miracle.

But when looked at in the context of previous budget reviews, the latest figures paint a different picture:

 

What this shows is a budget that, while increasing or remaining stable, has actually been revised down. These figures are taken from the 2015, 2016 and 2017 budget reviews.

Additional bad news for the science community is that this money does not buy what it used to: Consumer Price Inflation is expected to range between 4.6% and 6.4% for this period. To keep up with inflation, the department would need at least an additional R300-million (R480-million if inflation is high) each year just to keep up. According to the budget numbers, money for science and technology is not increasing in real terms.

Another major obstacle for research funding in South Africa is our weak currency: these new numbers do not take currency volatility into consideration. Luckily the currency has strengthened slightly (this time last year, the currency was in the middle of a beautifully executed dive off the high-diving board and research institutions were feeling the pain of it). But the reality is that local researchers struggle to compete internationally when journals are priced in pounds, dollars and Euros, as is most scientific equipment.

Maybe this will be the year when business, recognising that government can no longer push the R&D agenda, will return more whole-heartedly to the research table. South Africa’s R&D spend is quite singular in that government is the largest spender on research and development, having overtaken business a few years ago. In most countries, business drives R&D and innovation. Gordhan mentioned in his speech that the department of science and technology’s R&D tax incentive (which gives companies tax breaks for doing R&D in South Africa) brought in R30-billion between 2006 and 2016. Relatively speaking, that is not a lot of money. But allegedly the number of businesses involved in the incentive scheme is increasing.

While these numbers in context show that spending on science and technology is actually declining, the bright side is that the science budget did not get cut. And with gross domestic product growth of 0.5% last year (which is expected to rise to 1.3% this year and to 2% in 2018), that really is a bright side: science, technology and research — often considered “nice to have’s” — are usually where cash-strapped governments look to cut the fat.

20 things to know about SA’s research infrastructure roadmap

 

SA versus Australia: Rugby, cricket and astronomy

South Africa and Australia have more in common than clear blue skies, rugby and a penchant for burning meat on an open fire.

The two countries – whose economies were founded on the mineral resources under the soil and which are separated from European, Asian and North American markets by thousands of kilometres – also engage in similar areas of science and research.

A list of Australia’s science and research focus areas looks very similar to what you would see in South Africa: supercomputing and big data, marine science, astronomy, nuclear research, mining technologies, climate change, and biodiversity, among others. But the major difference is one of scale – Australia simply has more money.

South Africa’s annual National Survey of Research and Experimental Development Survey 2013- 14, which was released last month, was underwhelming. The country failed to spend 1% of its gross domestic product on research and development (R&D) – the percentage has sat at 0.73% for the last three years – and its target of 1.5% by 2019 seems increasingly unattainable.

“It is clear that the country needs to significantly increase investment and growth in R&D,” the department of science and technology said in a statement, following the release of the report. The department is responsible for driving science and technology – and thus R&D – in the country. “This means that we need to maintain or scale up aspects of the current policy approach that are helping in this regard.”

In total, the country – which includes government, business, science councils, higher education institutions and the not-for-profit sector – spent R25.7-billion on R&D in 2013-14. At constant 2010 Rand values, this was a 1.4% increase on 2012-13.

However, this is dwarfed by Australia’s R&D spend. In 2013-14, the country spent Aus$33.5-billion (R386.5-billion) on R&D, with business accounting for the lion’s share. It spends just over 2.1% of its gross domestic product, which is substantially larger than South Africa’s, on R&D.

While there are many areas of research cross over – not least of all astronomy, with Australia and South Africa jointly hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest radio telescope in the world – the way that this research is organised is slightly different.

The main driver of R&D in South Africa’s government is the department of science and technology. This department is responsible for the National Research Foundation, which oversees research at higher education institutions and funds postgraduate students, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which is the largest scientific research institute on the continent.

According to the 2016 national budget, this relatively small department, which was established in 2002, has been allocated R7.43-billion for 2016-17, R7.56-billion for 2017-18 and R7.76-billion for 2018-19.

“The amounts are reasonable,” science and technology director-general Dr Phil Mjwara said when the budget was announced earlier this year. “We’re happy that at least the budget is still around R7.5-billion. There are [departments] that have lost several billion in their budget.

“In the entire context [of South Africa’s economic situation], we’re also contributing to belt tightening. We hope that, as the economic situation becomes better, it will increase,” he said.

The 2013-14 R&D figures did yield some good news, though: “This is the first year since 2008-09 that the business sector has shown a positive year-on-year change in R&D expenditure…. The largest increase in business-funded R&D since before 2009-10 also occurred in 2013-14,” the report’s authors write.

In 2013-14, business spent R10.6-billion on R&D. But that was not enough for business to topple government from its status as biggest funder of R&D, a position which it has held since 2012-13. Government accounted for 42.9% and business 41.4% in 2013-14.

Australian business, on the other hand, spent Aus$18.8-billion (R206.8-billion) on research in 2013- 14, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This is almost double what its government spent, at Aus$9.9-billion (R108.9-billion).

That government’s science agenda is strongly orientated towards business. For example, its department of science and technology-equivalent is called the department of industry, innovation and science.

Philip Dalidakis, the minister of small business, innovation and trade for the state of Victoria in eastern Australia, said: “Innovation policy is everything, not just technological. It is when you do something more efficiently than you did before. There is no limit to what innovation should be.”

Dalidakis, who is based in Melbourne and responsible for his portfolio in that state, said: “It’s about having the right infrastructure at the bottom, which allows those companies in those different fields to flourish.”

But his portfolio is heavily focused on commercialisation, rather than research. “No disrespect to the men and women who are running around doing research … running around in their little white lab coats thinking they’re saving the world, everything that I do as a minister will have a commercialisation focus.”

Commercialisation of knowledge is an issue in all countries – including Australia – but South Africa feels this issue keenly since most of its R&D personnel are based in universities. In 2013-14, there were just under 41,500 R&D personnel within the higher education sector, more than double the 17,600 in business.

Although South Africa has promulgated legislation to ensure that researchers flag possibly patentable research, the reality is that commercialisation is not the focus of an academic institution.

South Africa and Australia both have R&D tax incentive schemes to encourage business to do R&D in their countries, but South Africa’s is still trying to garner support.

South Africa’s incentive offers qualifying companies a 150% tax deduction on their operational costs of R&D. However, between its inception in 2006 and the middle of last year, fewer than 1,000 companies had applied, and the applications of about 190 had been approved. Businesses complain that the process is too slow and bureaucratic, and the scheme is currently under-review in an effort to improve its efficacy.

In Australia, this incentive translates into a 45% refundable tax offset on R&D spend for a company with a turnover of less than Aus$20-million which is in a tax-loss situation. For other eligible

companies, this could be a 40% non-refundable tax offset. According to the latest budget statements, in 2015-16 R&D tax incentives cost the Australian government Aus$4.7-million (R51.7- million).

The order of magnitude difference between the South African research system and Australian’s explains the surprise – still present in Australia – that both countries were selected to host the SKA.

Australia has been a world leader in radio astronomy since it began converting its radar systems – a part of Allied defenses during World War Two – into radio telescopes. While South Africa also had expertise in radar, until 2007 its only radio telescope was at the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory. In 2007, the country began building prototype telescopes to showcase its radio astronomy engineering ability.

But in 2012, the international SKA Organisation, the entity co-ordinating the pre-construction of the telescope, decided to split the site of the SKA between Australia and South Africa, following what was – for the science community – a relatively fraught bid campaign.

The SKA, which will comprise thousands of dishes and antennas in Australia and on the African continent, will attempt to answer some of science and humanity’s most baffling questions, such as: Is there life on other planets, how to galaxies form, and what is dark matter?

It will be the largest scientific instrument on Earth, and the most expensive. Initial estimates put the radio telescope at more than EUR2-billion. The first phase, known as SKA 1, is capped at EUR650- million, with construction planned to begin in 2018.

In the run up to the decision, both Australia and South Africa built precursor telescopes to show their scientific and engineering capability. South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT telescope is being built, with 16 dishes to be unveiled at the end of this month (June). The 36-dish Australian SKA Pathfinder (Askap) is currently being commissioned. Both countries have developed “radio quiet” sites to host these telescopes. South Africa’s is in the Northern Cape, while Australia’s is in the Shire of Murchison in Western Australia.

However, while MeerKAT will form part of SKA 1 – with another 133 dishes planned in addition to the 64 dishes that will be on the ground at the beginning of next year – Askap will not. Australia will, instead, host about 130,000 dipole antennas, which look like 6ft-tall Christmas trees built out of thick wire. This was another blow for a country that thought it was a shoe-in to host the entirety of the SKA.

Australian officials maintain that they have a “no regrets” policy with regards to the construction of Askap, although there is no guarantee that this precursor will be included in the SKA.

“Big science is expensive,” says Peter Klinken, the chief scientist for the state of Western Australia, where their portion of the SKA will be built. The amounts required for the SKA are “not that stunning” when compared to Australia’s science and research budget, he says. He puts the total amount put into radio astronomy by the state and the commonwealth government at Aus$850- million (R9.35-billion).

South Africa, however, holds up astronomy, and the SKA, as a flagship project and geographic advantage focus area. It is considered a high-skills area of science, with the ability to boost technical development and skills in the country. In comparison to the science undertaken during apartheid, such as munitions and uranium enrichment, radio astronomy is a relatively benign science to fund with government money.

The MeerKAT’s price tag is about R2-billion, but there are other funding boosts, such as astronomy research chairs in universities and the establishment of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, among others. This makes the country’s total spend on astronomy difficult to quantify. It is, however, less than R9.35-billion.

But perhaps the most fundamental difference between the South African and Australian research system is one of redress. South Africa’s science policies are geared towards human capital development and including previously disadvantaged people in a system that has historically been white and male.

The latest available figures show that academia in South Africa still has a long way to go before it is representative of the country’s population. Black women, the largest demographic group in South Africa, accounted for 12% of the total number of humanities, social science and natural science researchers in universities in 2013-14. White men held the largest percentage at 28%, followed by white women (27%) and black men (18%). Indian men and women (both at 4%) and Coloured men and women (both at 3%) held substantially lower percentages.

In her 2014 budget vote, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor announced that the NRF would increase the ratio of black graduate students funded from 63% in 2013-14 to 71% in 2016- 17, and the ratio of women funded from 53% to 55%.

While this is an issue in South Africa, it does not appear to be one in Australia’s science, research and innovation space. While there is a push to achieve parity for women in research positions in Australia, inclusion of aboriginal peoples within the science system is not flagged as a high priority.

When asked if there were quotas regarding the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the innovation space, Dalidakis said: “No. At this white settlement, we were very good at killing off indigenous Australians.”

While Dalidakis’ comments cannot be extrapolated to the whole of Australia, that government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy’s five priority areas are jobs, land and economy; children and schooling; safety and wellbeing; culture and capability; and remote Australia strategies. Science, research and innovation are not included.

Wild’s trip to Australia was funded by the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

This article was first published in the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s publication Acumen.

Innovation agency CEO works on bringing stability

THE room has not changed in four years: frosted glass walls enclosing an oval table.

A Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) CEO is laying out his plans for the future. Again.

“When I arrived, I was the sixth CEO in five years; now I’m the sixth CEO in six years,” says Barlow Manilal. “TIA really needed some stability.”

Disgraced former CEO Simphiwe Duma, the TIA’s first head, also said in 2011 that his role was to create stability in the organisation. Duma was fired for gross misconduct, along with chief financial officer Barbara Kortjass.

Manilal took over in 2015 as the organisation was going through an extensive restructuring process, which saw the 193 staff complement cut by about a third. At the time, he laid out six-, 12-, 18-and 36-month plans. Within six months, he wanted “stability among the staff and signs of a performance culture emerging”.

 

For more, find the article — originally published in Business Day — here.

South Africa’s university system at a “tipping point”

More than 1,200 South African academics are warning that the country’s university system is at a tipping point as a result of chronic underfunding.

The researchers from 18 South African universities have signed an open letter to the president Jacob Zuma, higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande and finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

The letter, sent on 11 August and also published in the national weekly newspaper the Mail & Guardian on 15 August, calls on the government to address the “funding crisis” in higher education.

For more, find the article — originally published in Nature — here.

 

South Africa’s still in the R&D doldrums: the 10 things you need to know

South Africa’s latest R&D figures were slipped into the public domain last week, with none of the fanfare of previous years. It is easy to understand why. Science and technology minister Naledi Pandor has been pushing increased investment in research and development, and these figures seem to show that no one is listening.

The hopeful possibility is that it is taking time for the effects of interventions — like the R&D tax incentive and the IP legislation — to be felt.

 

Here are the top 10 things you need to know about the latest National Survey of Research and Experimental Development.

Industry doubles government research chair spend

For every R1 invested in the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), industry had invested R2, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said in Cape Town on Wednesday.

The SARChI, established in 2005, aims to address the shortage of postgraduate supervisors and increase the country’s research output. Research chairs are exempt from the teaching requirements of other academic staff and focus on postgraduate training and research.

“Its aim was to attract top-rank scientists to South Africa to boost our scientific competitiveness,” Pandor said. She was speaking at the launch of three new research chairs, co-funded with the United Kingdom. “It was also designed to encourage South Africans to stay at South African universities in the face of what was seen at the time as brain drain aboard of senior academics.”

Government funds the SARChi to the tune of about R404-million annually, Pandor said. While the total cumulative public investment between 2006 and 2014 was R1.5-billion, the research chairs had used these funds to leverage an additional R3-billion from foreign sources, government departments and industry, she said.

There are now 198 chairs in the initiative, including the three new UK-SA chairs. Two of the chairs, awarded to Dr Stephen Devereux at the University of the Western Cape and Prof Michael Roberts at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, would focus on food security. They would be allocated R1.3-million each by the British Council. The third new chair awarded to Wits University and amounting to R1.7-million, would focus on political science.

“This latest UK-SA bilateral research chairs initiative is the second such initiative after the global environmental health initiative established with Switzerland last year,” Pandor said. “The third will be in nanosciences and advanced materials with Germany.”