Science, technology and innovation at the centre of SA's development agenda

By placing science, technology and innovation (STI) at the centre of South Africa's development agenda, we have opportunity to ensure that the country becomes a global hub of STI innovation, says Dhesigen Naidoo, Council member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI).

Naidoo made this comment during the presentation of the 2020 South African STI Indicators Report in Parliament in Cape Town on 14 October 2020. He was presenting the report on behalf of the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande.

The report, which was released to the public in August 2020, reveals that the current state of STI in South Africa is less than ideal. It also provides information on the state of STI in the country over time and within a global context.

"Thus, the report 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," said Naidoo.

He noted that South Africa's research and development (R&D) spending as a proportion of gross domestic product remains at 0,83%, well below the 1,5% target set by government. "The reality is that we are not getting close that target anytime soon," he added.

R&D funding by the business sector remains constrained, having declined from 42% of total R&D funding in the 2015/16 financial year to 41% in 2017/18. Despite this, the business sector remains South Africa's biggest R&D contributor in nominal terms, with business spending on R&D amounting to R15,85 billion in 2017/18, up from R13,18 billion in 2015/16.

R&D spending has increased in the higher education sector, but dropped among national science councils. "The overall decline in funding is likely to drop further in the 2019/20 financial year, for which figures have yet to be published", Naidoo said.

Other areas in which South Africa's STI performance has declined in recent years include graduate employment numbers, innovation performance, and the total value of grants awarded by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

For Naidoo, the latter was a standout feature of the report. Over the past two years, NRF research grants have been on the decrease in nominal terms, dropping from R1,72 billion in 2017 to R1,52 billion in 2019.

According to Dr Mlungisi Cele, Acting Chief Executive Officer at NACI, there is collaboration between the NRF team and the other experts who produce data on science, technology and innovation.

Dr Cele noted that some of the recommendations of the STI Indicators Report, including the creation of human resource development strategies that take into account the value produced at postgraduate level, as well as measures to boost R&D spending, are already being implemented. He added that the report's recommendations had been forwarded to Minister Nzimande.

With improved knowledge exploitation and utilisation, the country's service sectors are more likely to get the information they need to innovate from education and research institutions than is the case with industrial sectors which are innovation-active.

South Africa is also seeing a closer correspondence between rates of unemployment and education levels, although this was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. According to the STI Indicators Report, the majority (55,9%) of unemployed people have a qualification lower than matric, while only 2,1% of the unemployed are graduates. It is apparent that unemployment is lower among those with higher levels of education.

University-industry-government partnerships, and technology exports, were also found to be lower when compared to countries such as China and Korea.

In terms of knowledge production, as measured by highly cited journal articles, South Africa is ranked 32nd in the world. The country's ranking in the Global Innovation Index, produced by the World Intellectual Property Office and partners, dropped from 58th place in 2018 to 63rd place in 2019. South Africa also ranks poorly for efficiency in turning innovation inputs into outputs.

Naidoo said that while innovation does not guarantee development, it will assist in addressing some of the challenges the country faces. He added that international competitiveness is determined within a country and not outside its borders, and that sound economic strategies will help to address these issues.

Click here to view the 2020 South African STI Indicators Report


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