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08 December 2022

Spanning the boundaries between policymakers and researchers: A transformative innovation policy approach

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

A transformative innovation policy approach requires committed engagement with all stakeholders to define problems in communities and the agility to make changes in a non-linear manner. But, for this to work, researchers and policymakers may need to step out of their comfort zones. These were some of the take-home messages from a panel discussion co-hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) at this week’s World Science Forum (WSF) 2022 in Cape Town. The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) hosted the WSF under the theme “Science for Social Justice” from 6 to 9 December. By Antoinette Oosthuizen

On Monday, 5 December, the HSRC, the DSI and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) held a pre-conference side event entitled Spanning the Boundaries Between Policymakers and Researchers: A Transformative Innovation Policy Approach. A Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP) approach aims to support innovation that addresses South Africa’s complex societal and environmental challenges.

Over the last four years, the country has been part of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium, which brings together policymakers, academics and practitioners to experiment with new approaches to policy design, implementation and evaluation. It focuses on participatory, bottom-up approaches, rather than traditional approaches where mostly researchers and policymakers defined problems and solutions.

“We need to provide policymakers with the tools to effect transformative change, but at the same time provide researchers the opportunity to connect with the real challenges that the policymakers face and the type of insights they require,” said Imraan Patel, deputy director-general of research development and support in Department of Science and Innovation.

Imraan Patel, deputy director-general of research development and support in the Department of Science and Innovation,
and Dr Glenda Kruss, head of the HSRC’s Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators.
Photo: Antoinette Oosthuizen

Dr Glenda Kruss, head of the HSRC’s Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII), said most of the standard global indicators don’t help researchers to understand and measure how science, technology and innovation can be oriented to South Africa’s major societal challenges.

The idea of TIP is to keep the focus on systems but to also consider socio-technical systems, for example, in how we think about science, technology and innovation bringing about change in the energy system.

“One of the major tools we use is designing engaged policy experiments, which brings together policy actors, academics and practitioners who focus on a specific set of issues or on a developmental challenge.” The first South Africa TIP policy experiment, the ‘Living Catchments Water Project, aims to foster collaboration to improve water governance in the country.

Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, assistant director-general for natural sciences at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), highlighted the importance of an evolving TIP system where science and policy are able to evolve simultaneously. We also need skills development, investment in South Africa’s technical universities, and an enabling environment for young and early-career scientists.

Tshepang Mosiea, a director in the Department of Science and Innovation, spoke about work he had done in the field of sanitation and off-grid, energy-efficient settlements. In addition to the environmental impact of technology, cultural factors need to be considered as well as the extent to which technology is enhancing lives, production and the future of work. We need to be sure developers of technology are considering issues of social justice, transparency and how the benefits are distributed in society, he said.

Nontombi Marule, director of innovation and technology in the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, also highlighted the importance of agility, when research, implementation and policymaking happen concurrently with the ability to apply new insights quickly rather than wait decades to change direction. This would prevent situations where, at the implementation stage, it transpires that communities’ needs were not accurately determined or that crucial partners are excluded.

This was echoed by Mapula Tshangela, the director of climate change mitigation sector plan implementation at the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. She said communities need to be on board at the stage when problems are defined. Innovation and policymaking processes can take decades and a mismatch between science and evidence on the ground can affect uptake in the policy implementation phase.

Prof Erika Kraemer-Mbula, a professor of economics at the UJ, said the linear view of the nexus between science and policy and practitioners was increasingly being challenged.

“We have been working from the assumption that researchers provide the expertise and the knowledge to inform solutions, and this information needs to be translated to reach the space of policymakers. But science itself has become more contested.”

We need to talk about how knowledge is created and shared, and how intellectual property issues have changed the way science is made and used for policy. We now need to cocreate in a multistakeholder environment.

Prof Erika Kraemer-Mbula, a professor of economics at the University of Johannesburg; and Mapula Tshangela, the director of climate change mitigation sector plan implementation at the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment
Photo: Antoinette Oosthuizen

“Scientists and researchers want blue sky thinking space to come up with new concepts and theories. But how do you protect that space and at the same time expand yourself and allow other inputs to give you that flexibility of being useful and applicable to the realities of the needs of others? That puts researchers in an uncomfortable but important space.”

Engaging with civil society to understand real-life challenges is time-consuming and difficult, requires a lot of dedication and is not always sufficiently recognised, but we have to do it if we want to solve complex societal problems, she said.

At the same time, researchers are working with institutions that don’t change as fast as we need them to. “We work at institutions that value our publications in highly rated journals. The extent to which you influence policy does not count for your promotion. So, the way in which we value scientific outputs needs to change.”

For more information, visit the South African TIP Community of Practice website here or send an email to You can also find them on YouTube.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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