Tag: Science funding

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


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.