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18 Jan 2023

HSRC survey finds South African R&D steady during peak COVID-19 period

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

Pretoria, Wednesday 18 January 2023 – The South African National Survey of Research and Experimental Development conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council for the Department of Science and Innovation has found that research and experimental development (R&D) activity remained steady in 2020/21, despite the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reported in current prices, gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), an indicator of the R&D intensity in an economy, was 0.61% in 2020/21. This was just one basis point lower than the 0.62% recorded in 2019/20, the survey found.

South African R&D is measured using guidelines published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which enables comparison with other countries.

The survey which has been conducted annually since 2001/2 by the HSRC’s Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) reports the latest available data on R&D expenditure and performance across five sectors: higher education, science councils, government, business, and not-for-profit organisations.

Key findings of the 2020/21 survey

Business reported the largest decrease in R&D expenditure

The business sector reported the largest decrease in R&D expenditure for 2020/21, dropping by R657 million, followed by the higher education and science council sectors that were down by R393 million and R296 million respectively. The contribution of SOEs to R&D activity in the business sector decreased by 5 percentage points to 14.2% in 2020/21, a decrease of R394 million.

R&D personnel grew after a large decline in 2019/20

The business sector increased its R&D personnel by a headcount of 1 429. A substantial component of this appeared to be R&D initiated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. R&D personnel in government remained unchanged and the higher education sector decreased its headcount by 666 R&D personnel.

Government remained the largest funder of R&D

Government funded 56.3% of R&D in South Africa while business funded 26.9%, with foreign funding contributing 13.3%. Funding from abroad decreased by R201 million while funding from South African sources other than the main institutional sectors increased by R127 million.

Manufacturing, agriculture, and transport industrial sectors saw decreased R&D expenditure while financial and mining R&D grew

Manufacturing and financial intermediation remain the two industrial sectors with the highest R&D expenditure within the business sector, contributing 28.8% and 42.3% respectively. The manufacturing sector recorded the largest sectoral decrease in R&D expenditure of R561 million from R3.456 billion to R2.895 billion. R&D in agriculture and transport decreased by R256 million and R229 million respectively. By contrast, financial intermediation increased R&D expenditure by R218 million, while mining and quarrying increased by R241 million to R927 million

in 2020/21.

Gauteng’s share of R&D continued to decrease

Gauteng performs most of SA’s R&D, but its share decreased by R332 million in 2020/21. Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal were the second and third largest contributors, respectively, contributing R71 million and R351 million more in 2020/21, while Free State increased its R&D expenditure by R469 million (1.3%).

Medical and health sciences dominated research areas

The medical and health sciences account for the majority of R&D (22.1%), followed by social sciences (19.7%) and engineering sciences (12.9%).

R&D in priority policy areas continued to increase

Despite an overall economic decline, R&D increased in nanotechnology and biotechnology. Similarly, research in environment-related areas showed gains along with space science research. Research on communicable diseases (TB, HIV/AIDS and malaria) continued to increase.

Reflecting on the results of the 2020/21 R&D Survey, CeSTII Executive Head, Dr Glenda Kruss, noted that all sectors could work on strengthening their capacity to fund and perform R&D.

“As we emerge from COVID-19 and tackle the many challenges that face us nationally and globally, our capacity to fund and perform R&D in order to innovate is vital.”

“Countries that create ideal conditions for R&D to flourish reap multiple rewards. These range from solutions to health, environmental and social challenges to new discoveries that trigger economic growth and new knowledge. The business, higher education, government, science councils and not-for-profit sectors exist in relationships of synergy, and we need investment in R&D to thrive in all of these sectors to improve our national system of innovation.”

“South Africa has been studying and measuring R&D for more than 20 years since the onset of democracy, providing valuable insights into sectoral R&D and allowing us to calibrate our policy tools and interventions to enhance our capacity for transformative R&D.”

“As we release these results for the 2020/21 year, policymakers and scholars should engage this data robustly, to inform deliberation about growing R&D to reach national investment targets, and to address our socio-economic development challenges,” said Dr Kruss.


Click here to access the results of the South African National Survey of Research and Experimental Development Statistical Report 2020/21.

For media enquiries:

Dr Lucky Ditaunyane, Cell: +27 83 227 6074 Email: Nematandani, Cell: +27 82 765 9191 Email:

Notes to the Editor

About the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

The HSRC was established in 1968 as South Africa’s statutory research agency and has grown to become the largest dedicated research institute in the social sciences and humanities on the African continent, doing cutting-edge public research in areas that are crucial to development.

Our mandate is to inform the effective formulation and monitoring of government policy; to evaluate policy implementation; to stimulate public debate through the effective dissemination of research-based data and fact-based research results; to foster research collaboration; and to help build research capacity and infrastructure for the human sciences.

The Council conducts large-scale, policy-relevant, social-scientific research for public sector users, non-governmental organizations and international development agencies. Research activities and structures are closely aligned with South Africa’s national development priorities.

About the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII)

CeSTII maintains an extensive database of historic unit-level survey responses and a rich repository of completed R&D surveys.

Each year, the R&D Survey team reports the latest available data on R&D expenditure, personnel, and funding across five sectors: higher education, science councils, government, business, and not-for-profit organisations. 

Statistics are used for science policy to set government R&D priorities and funding levels, and for monitoring and benchmarking purposes.

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