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02 June 2005

Factsheet 3 : Building up our national science system

Press Release

The national system of science and innovation is a key component of our country?s HRD machinery. Its primarily task is to continuously seek to improve production methods, outputs and employment levels in all sectors of the economy: from high technology, high-skill sectors, to the older ‘middle’ economic sectors (largely mass-production manufacturing and mining enterprises heavily dependent on intermediate skills) and the low-skill sectors.

The key requirements of such a process are enterprise restructuring; government science, technology and industrial policies; and the ongoing commercial application of scientific innovation in industry, supported by the science councils and higher education institutions.

South Africa currently faces several constraints in its attempts to achieve this goal, for example poor performance against international standards and a weakening science base. There are several international benchmarks which rank South Africa’s economic competitiveness and human development achievements with those of the rest of the world. They show that South Africa’s achievements in this regard have been uneven, as the following data demonstrate:

  • South Africa occupied 94th place out of 162 countries in the human development index in 2001, dropping to 107th place out of 173 countries in 2002. Factors contributing to this decline were low life-expectancy rates and the high percentage of adults living with HIV/AIDS.
  • South Africa occupied 39th place out of 72 countries in the technology achievement index in 2001, coming in ahead of countries such as Brazil (43rd), China (44th), Algeria (58th) and Indonesia (60th).
  • South Africa occupied 42nd place out of 49 countries in the World Competitiveness Year Book in 2001. Factors contributing to this negative assessment included the fact that South Africa occupied almost all the last positions in indices that had to do with educational outcomes, quality and availability of human resources, and science and technology capacity.
  • South Africa occupied seventh place out of 24 African countries in the African Competitiveness Report in 2000/01. It boasted good electricity, telephone, Internet connectivity and cellular infrastructure, and had a very high secondary school enrolment ratio compared with other African countries.

These rankings suggest that South Africa?s standing in the world economy is doubled-edged. On the one hand, as a middle-level developing country, it is rated poorly in comparison with the HRD, science and technology achievements of industrialised countries. On the other hand, South Africa possesses a considerable HRD and science and technology infrastructure in comparison with developing economies in Latin America, Asia, and almost all of Africa.

Weakening science base

Even though South Africa?s current science and technology rankings may be equivalent to those of other middle developing economies, these achievements are under threat by the noticeable weakening of some elements of the national system of science and innovation in South Africa. These include:

Scientific publishing. Research output faces three related difficulties:

  • the total output of scientific articles has remained static over the past decade, with a slight decline since 1997;
  • higher education institutions and science councils are struggling to recruit and retain young scholars who publish;
  • there is a gradual ?ageing? of the existing publishing population. Combined age and race data suggest that a serious crisis is looming as the white ?over 50? cohort moves closer to retirement with little evidence of a commensurate younger black cohort waiting in the wings.

Research and Development (R&D) expenditure. South Africa spends 0.77% of GDP on R&D. In comparison with R&D expenditure in each of five Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany and Spain), South Africa records the lowest gross domestic expenditure on R&D. The percentage of GDP spent on R&D in these countries ranges between 0.89% (Spain) and 3.36% (Finland).

Poor doctoral output. Doctoral enrolments increased by 29% between 1985 and 2000 ? a rather gradual increase of 2% per year during this period. In terms of gender and race, the majority of students enrolled for postgraduate degrees are still white and male. In addition, postgraduate studies in the human sciences still dominate.

Emigration. Between 1987 and 1997, the country lost 41 496 skilled emigrants during this period, a figure which is 3.2 times more than the 12 949 officially declared.

The disjuncture here is clear: just as South Africa faces the possibility of moving up the so-called global value chain in terms of increased exports, so its science system weakens. The resultant outcome is not good news for increasing global competitiveness.

Government has attempted to deal with these complex problems through the National R&D Strategy and the National Biotechnology Strategy which aim to affect a rapid turnaround in South Africa’s science base, to develop science and technology capacity along five critical technology platforms, and to increase the number of women and black scientists in key fields in which they are under-represented. Cabinet has also committed to substantially increasing the science budget over the period 2004/05 to 2006/07 to finance these reforms.

However, many ?joined-up? solutions are not yet in place, which is largely due to the fact that complex social problems are often not addressed cross-sectorally but mono-departmentally, resulting in the relegation of key aspects of the problem outside of specific departmental mandates. What is now required is greater joined-up efforts by government to find multi-faceted policy solutions which span existing departmental silos.

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