Urgent steps need to be taken for South Africa to realise its economic growth and human development targets and to place the country where it ought to be among the world's nations. This sentiment emerged during the release of the 2020 South African Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators Report which reveals that the current state of STI in South Africa is less than ideal.


The launch of the report recently, was accompanied by a policy forum on the state of innovation in the country. This included a presentation on the reviews of the National Research and Development Strategy (NRDS) and the Ten-Year Innovation Plan (TYIP), as well as a presentation on the Agricultural Business Innovation Survey 2016-2018.


The gaps identified in the STI Indicators Report provide a starting point for role players to take South Africa's national system of innovation (NSI) forward to meet the country's STI and development targets.


In producing the annual report, the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) reviews the state of STI in South Africa over time and in a global context.  Thus, it provides all stakeholders, including the government, private sector, civil society and academia, with critical feedback on the country's strengths and weaknesses in the STI domain.


The 2020 STI Indicators Report reflects progress on some indicators, while pointing to areas of concern. Although South Africa's research system, particularly public institutions such as universities and science councils, has shown a steady increase in scientific publications over many years, more recent performance indicates a decline. South Africa's publications per million of the population declined from 371 in 2017 to 360 in 2018.


Improvements continue to be evident at school level. The National Senior Certificate pass rate in Physical Sciences improved from 58,6% in 2015 to 75,5% in 2019, while the Mathematics pass rate improved from 49,1% in 2015 to 58% in 2018, before declining to 54,6% in 2019.


Most of the doctoral degrees produced in South Africa are in the field of the natural and agricultural sciences, with 1 051 doctorates produced in 2018. Only 7% of doctoral degrees produced are in the field of engineering.


The number of researchers within the business and higher education sectors increased by 14,7% and 15,7% respectively between 2016/17 and 2017/18. Unemployment is lower among those with higher levels of education. Among those with master's and doctoral degrees, unemployment increased from 2,4% in 2018 to 2,8% in 2019.


Financing of the NSI continues to be a challenge. In 2017/18, South Africa's gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 0,83%, which remains below the 1,5% target. Business expenditure on research and development (BERD) as a percentage of GERD declined from 58,6% in 2008/09 to 41% in 2017/18, and as a percentage of GDP, declined from 0,52% in 2008/09 to 0,34% in 2017/18.


In contrast to the business sector, GERD in the public sector increased from R4,1 billion in 2008/09 to R13 billion in 2017/18 – an increase of 85% in 2010 rand-value terms. Increased funding of universities contributed to an increase in both the number of postgraduate students (a national long-term objective) and the number of publications from universities.


The number of master's degrees (by research) also increased, from 6 460 in 2013 to 8 610 in 2018, while the number of doctoral graduates increased from 2 051 in 2013 to 3 307 in 2018.


The report suggests that, if the underlying forces during the past period remain intact, the number of doctoral graduates will reach the target of 5 000 per annum by 2030, with partnerships between science councils and universities contributing to the significant enrolment and graduation of both master's and doctoral candidates.


NACI Council Member and CEO of the Water Research Council, Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, said an "extraordinary" effort was needed to improve South Africa's innovation situation.


"We are now looking at a point in this country where we have never had so many highly skilled people unemployed. It is a travesty, and the youth dividend is definitely at risk," said Mr Naidoo. Noting the 2,8% unemployment rate among master's and doctoral graduates, he added that, given South Africa's current structural socio-economic challenges, the country could not afford to have even a single unemployed graduate.


Mr Naidoo cited the GERD and BERD trends as additional cause for concern, as well as the relationship between the technology balance of payments, the trade balance and economic growth.


Discussing the reviews of the NRDS and TYIP, Prof. Johann Mouton, Director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, said the original objectives of the two technology-related strategies – to contribute towards the transition to a knowledge-based economy, to improve the sector's competitiveness through advanced manufacturing and innovation, and to leverage resource-based industries – were still valid.


What had changed over time, he said, was the introduction of new technological initiatives in areas including fluoride-based electrolytes, additive manufacturing and advanced materials.


"Technology changes are fast-moving and are often linked to new challenges resulting from fundamental shifts in social dynamics. It would thus be prudent for the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) to revisit its current portfolio of technology programmes, in light of recent global developments as well as the recommendations of the Research Foresight Exercise," he said.


He also urged the DSI to undertake an in-depth review of existing funding instruments targeting business and innovation in order to achieve optimal coordination and efficiency.


In building the next generation of scientists and scholars in the country, Prof. Mouton said a study should be conducted to investigate possible synergies between the investments of universities, funding agencies such as the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), and government departments such as the Departments of Higher Education and Training, Water Affairs and Forestry, and Health.


Releasing the results of the Agricultural Business Innovation Survey 2016-2018, Dr Glenda Kruss, Executive Head of the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII), said the fisheries sector invested over 60% in research and development, and more than 80% in marketing of innovations across all fish farming categories.


Agriculture only invested 40% in research and development, with 20% going to marketing of innovations. Much of the investment, accounting for 60%, went to training, followed by procurement of farming equipment.


Issued by the Department of Science and Innovation


Click here the full STI Indicators report


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