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15 February 2024

Upturn in SA Research and Development expenditure after COVID-19 pandemic – HSRC Survey

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

Pretoria, Thursday, 15 February 2024 – The Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) South African National Survey of Research and Experimental Development reveals that the gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) has risen in real terms for the first time in four years. In 2021/22, GERD as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of research and development (R&D) intensity, reached 0.62%, a slight increase from the previous year’s 0.60%. This growth, in 2015 prices, amounted to a 6.9% year-on-year increase in 2021/22, from R25.965 billion in 2020/21 to R27.756 billion in 2021/22.

“Nations that invest in R&D at a high enough intensity tend to lead in global competitiveness,” says Dr Nazeem Mustapha, HSRC chief research specialist and the R&D Survey’s principal investigator. “South Africa is striving to reach higher levels of R&D intensity by increasing expenditure on R&D, which in turn can lead to new industries and boosting of existing ones, job creation, increased productivity, and sustained economic growth.”

GERD encompasses all spending on R&D on national territory in a given year. It includes domestically performed R&D, which is funded from abroad, but excludes R&D funds paid abroad, such as to international agencies.

Key indicators highlight positive economic growth in South Africa for the period under review. According to Statistics South Africa (2023), South Africa’s GDP rebounded, rising by 4.7% in 2021/22 after a 6.0% decline during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020/21.

“The growth in R&D expenditure is reassuring, although this comes off a very low base. The previous year’s decline in growth represented the biggest fall in R&D expenditure in the twenty years that the HSRC has been conducting the survey. We expect the next survey’s result to provide us with a better sense of what the trend is,” says Mustapha.

R&D expenditure, funding and personnel movements

Nominal R&D expenditure rose across all five institutional sectors. The survey identified the R3.480 billion increase in business sector R&D expenditure as the main contributor to the increase in GERD. The higher education sector increased R&D expenditure by R446 million, the government sector increased by R235 million, and the not-for-profit sector increased R&D expenditure by R31 million.

The government remains the largest funder of R&D, accounting for 52.5% of total funding, followed by business (29.0%) and foreign sources (14.5%). Foreign funding has increased significantly over the past decade, with most investments directed towards higher education and business sectors.

R&D personnel increased across all sectors, with a total increase of 2,857 individuals (3.5% year-on-year) in 2021/22, including 1,716 researchers (a 2.8% increase). Notably, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) increased their R&D expenditure, with R&D personnel numbers rising in various sectors. Enterprises in the business sector employed 917 new R&D personnel, which includes technicians as well as researchers. However, they shed 140 researchers.

R&D personnel increased by 1,657 in the higher education sector, 155 in the government sector, and 79 in the science councils’ sector. The non-profit sector recorded an increase in the R&D personnel headcount of 49. In 2021/22, 1.9 full-time equivalent researchers were employed for every 1,000 R&D workers, an increase of 0.1. The ratio of female researchers as a percentage of total researchers rose by 0.4 percentage points to 47%.

“A longitudinal analysis of shifts in the proportions of researchers and technicians, as well as the overall movement of R&D personnel, is of value,” says Dr Glenda Kruss, executive head of the HSRC Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII).

“Such analysis, which is now possible with our time series data covering the past two decades, can inform future investments to grow skills and capabilities for the national system of innovation.”

Other key results

R&D activity in the manufacturing and financial services sectors has increased, with these sectors driving the majority of R&D expenditure.

Medical and health sciences, along with social sciences, continue to receive the highest R&D expenditure, at 22.8% and 18.4% respectively. The field of research with the third-highest R&D expenditure in South Africa is information, computer, and communication technology (13.1%), which surpasses the engineering sciences field (11.7%). Growth in social sciences is stagnant. The increase in 2021/22 came mainly from R&D in the natural sciences. Notably, investment in environmental research has increased, along with funding for priority policy areas such as biotechnology, space science, and new materials.

“Analysis of R&D patterns in key growth and emerging sectors is now a priority to assess progress towards South Africa’s science, technology and innovation goals,” says Kruss.

“We invite stakeholders to participate in a virtual private sector forum planned for 13 March 2024 to discuss insights from the latest R&D and innovation evidence.”

Click here to access the results of the South African National Survey of Research and Experimental Development Statistical Report 2021/22.

Click here to register to attend the virtual private sector forum “Harnessing RDI to grow the economy and tackle key challenges” on 13 March 2024.


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Notes to the Editor

About the R&D Survey Statistical Report

The Statistical Report presents data tables from the 2021/22 South African National Survey of Research and Experimental Development (R&D Survey). It provides key findings, commentary, and standard summary tables, comparing results with those from previous surveys. The survey covers a 12-month period corresponding to the sectoral financial year. For the business, government, science councils and NPO sectors, this is from 1 April to 31 March, or the nearest complete financial year. In the higher education sector, the calendar year is surveyed, ending 31 December.

The R&D Survey is conducted according to methodology standards set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which allows for international comparisons.

The report, which is produced by the HSRC’s Centre for Science, Technology, and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) on behalf of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), can be downloaded from the following link:

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 organisations and international development agencies. Research activities and structures are closely aligned with South Africa’s national development priorities.