The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, has welcomed the increase in government funding for research and development (R&D) activities, but expressed concern at the general decline in R&D funding from other stakeholders, as reflected in the latest national survey.

The results of the 2019/20 National Research and Experimental Development (R&D) Survey released on the 15 December 2021, indicates that the main sources of funding for R&D in South Africa are the government (including science councils and university own funds) and business sectors. Whereas government funding of R&D increased by R1,942 billion from the previous year, business funding dropped by R5,175 billion. Funding from abroad, which went mostly to the private sector, increased by R664 million.

The national R&D Survey is undertaken annually by the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) on behalf of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), with support from Statistics South Africa (StatsSA).

The latest trends in R&D expenditure show a similar trajectory to that of the economy in general. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth decreased by 1,4 of a percentage point to 0,1% in 2019, after taking into account the revisions due to StatsSA's bench-marking and rebasing of the GDP series to the 2015 year.

Gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) for 2019/20 amounted to R34,485 billion at current rand values. GERD is an aggregated measure of in-house R&D expenditure performed domestically in five institutional sectors, namely government, science councils, higher education institutions, the business sector, and the not-for-profit sector.

The medical and health sciences and social sciences are key research areas. The 2019/20 results show the strongest focus of R&D activity to be in the medical and health sciences (21,5%), followed by the social sciences (16,9%) and engineering sciences (13,4%).

Minister Nzimande said in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where R&D is key to saving lives, it is vital for the decline in funding to be arrested.

"We have witnessed and continue see the value that past investment in scientific research and development has had for South Africa and the world in fighting COVID 19. Our genomic surveillance has led to the detection of two variants already, and this work has been praised and welcomed globally," the Minister said.

The Minister added that the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) had in recent days approved an innovative COVID-19 antigen detection kit developed by local company Medical Diagnostech. This followed SAHPRA's authorisation, in August, of the manufacture of rapid COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kits by another local company, CapeBio.

"In light of these huge advances, we cannot afford such significant declines in both the performance of R&D and the funding of R&D by the business sector. Failure to arrest the decline by all social partners will hamper our efforts to achieve economic recovery and reconstruction," the Minister said, adding that urgent corrective action was required.

"I have requested the DSI, the HSRC-CeSTII and the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) to convene an urgent round-table engagement in February, where key role players including government, business, state-owned entities, universities, science councils and experts can reflect on the survey results and help formulate advice for consideration by Cabinet,” said the Minister.

The focus of the round-table will be on identifying the measures required to achieve the National Development Plan (NDP) target of raising the level of R&D investment in South Africa to 1,5% of GDP by 2030.

The Minister thanked all stakeholders and organisations that participated in the R&D Survey, especially during the difficult time of COVID-19, and requested their continued support and commitment.

The 2019/20 R&D Survey Statistical Report can be downloaded from the DSI and HSRC websites – www.dst.gov.za and www.hsrc.ac.za.