Long Africa’s leading research and development (R&D) centre, concerns have been raised that investment was stalling and South Africa’s research competitiveness slipping, so the government is expanding R&D capacity. According to a report published in March 2013 by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), a South African humanities research institution, in 2009/10, the last year for which figures were available, South Africa’s gross expenditure on R&D totalled R20.9bn ($2.5bn), or 0.87% of GDP. This represented a decline from 0.93% in 2007/08 and 0.92% in 2008/09. The fall was partly due to a R1.4bn ($170m), or 9.7%, drop in business R&D investment in 2009/10, only partly offset by a R1.1bn ($134.09m) increase in government outlay. South Africa’s goal of reaching R&D spending equivalent to 1% of GDP by 2008 was missed, and its new target of 2% by 2018 seems increasingly unlikely. A number of factors have contributed to the slowdown: the global downturn, the failure of a tax rebate law on R&D spending and the 2010 cancellation of an experimental nuclear energy project. Still, after the HSRC’s report, officials said a corner had been turned, and new projects and investment were coming.
Currently, there are a number of sources of research funding, with some overlap between them: state subsidies, directed grants for proposals in specific areas, private sector financing and cash from scientific councils. According to the HSRC, 53.2% of R&D funding came from business, 24.3% from higher education, 21.6% from government and 0.9% from other not-for-profit organisations. One of the most important institutions in the sector is the National Research Foundation (NRF), a government agency that aims to promote and support research in all fields of knowledge. The NRF was established in 1998 through the consolidation of several other agencies, with the aim of creating a more holistic and efficient structure for supporting research in South Africa. It is driving an ambitious project, “Scaling up the South African Research Enterprise”, which has the central goal of having the country produce 1% of global R&D output by 2020, up from just 0.55% in 2009. The programme would require an additional R5.9bn ($719m) of government spending per year by 2020, to take investment to an annual R6.4bn ($780m). Central to the plan is to increase South Africa’s output of PhDs per year to around 6000, from 1270 in 2010, to bring it up to the level of countries with the most vibrant R&D sectors, which produce 100 to 250 PhDs per million people, against around 27 for South Africa at present. According to the NRF, “This goal is critical for achieving the high-end skills levels that the knowledge economy needs, as well as for conducting globally-competitive R&D, nationally and on the African continent.”
Planned developments to achieve these goals include creating an additional 198 research chairs, increasing the number of Centres of Excellence (CoEs, NRF-mandated research bases that can be physical or virtual) by 22 to 30, adding seven more National Research Facilities to make a total of 13, and supporting 65 collaborative research projects between institutions within the country and the broader region.
A positive indicator that South Africa has a global role to play in R&D is the development of one of the core bases for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s biggest telescope, in Northern Cape. The SKA is backed by the NRF and organisations from 12 other countries and will consist of multiple antenna spread over an area of about 1 sq km. The R20bn ($2.44bn) project is expected to be complete by 2018 and will be used for detailed astronomical surveys. The project is already having a catalytic effect on R&D in the wider region; between 2005 and 2012, a programme operated by the African wing of the partnership issued 400 grants from undergraduate to post-doctoral level. Bernie Fanaroff, project director at SKA South Africa, told OBG that he expected the array to help Northern Cape become a centre for astronomy research. With the NRF into laying out new plans at a time when money is tight, private capital will prove crucial to meeting its goals.