The links between higher education and innovation need more careful scrutiny if we are to achieve a shift to "use-inspired basic research".
Although the national development plan’s “Vision for 2030”, released last month, argues that science and technology are key drivers of development, contemporary wisdom has it that it is rather innovation that is the font of economic growth and societal wellbeing.
The National Planning Commission’s document does address innovation in chapter three, “Economy and employment”, and in more detail in chapter eight, “Education, innovation and training”, but the treatment is somewhat muddled. I do not propose to deal with the muddle in great detail here, being content that at least innovation is up for discussion.
For now I would like to focus on the treatment of higher education in the national system of innovation given in chapter eight.
South Africa, the junior member of the Brics club that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China, must now box considerably above its weight class. To survive in the heavyweight league of Brics, we need to be nimble and smart and strive to extend our reach to the technological frontier.
Among emerging economies our country, like the earlier and perhaps lamentable case of Argentina, is accustomed to being a flyweight among the heavies. Recall that we have nurtured the careers of four Nobel prize-winners in the sciences and medicine and another five Nobel laureates in peace and literature. The whole of Latin America boasts 13 laureates, of which Argentina yielded five. We also have a Templeton prize-winner in the person of Professor George Ellis and we performed the world’s first heart transplant and made atomic bombs.
There is substance to the notion of South African exceptionalism, in many fields.
The 2030 vision calls for “a coherent national plan for higher education that includes the promotion of innovation and the development of knowledge [involving] higher education institutions, science councils, state-owned enterprises, the private sector and research institutes”.
This emphasis on innovation is curious in that innovation is not something that universities directly perform. They do not introduce products into the market. Of course, one agrees that “good science and technology education is crucial for South Africa’s future innovation”. But as I have already observed, the 2030 vision seems a little confused in its understanding of the innovation process.
In its quest to strengthen the innovation system, the plan calls for a doubling of the number of scientists, a quadrupling in the output of doctoral graduates and for the proportion of academic staff with PhDs to rise to 75% from 34%. This emphasis on doctoral degrees is predicated on the belief that doctoral holders play a central role in the processes of innovation.
These are all supply-side issues. The plan’s advocacy for the supply-side argument centres on a comparison with Brazil, where the University of São Paulo alone produces twice the number of doctorates than all our universities combined—and this with a staff complement 98% of whom hold doctorates. But is this a reasonable comparison? Actually, no, because São Paulo is an exceptional state university: in 2003 it produced more PhD graduates than the top three awarding universities in the United States combined—Berkeley in California, Nova South Eastern University in Florida and the University of Texas at Austin.
This is certainly impressive, but we must place the University of São Paulo in context.
Brazil, a country on a similar economic level to South Africa, produces doctoral degrees at twice our rate despite its much younger university system. The explanation for this lies way back in Brazil’s authoritarian past when the funding agency Capes (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior) was founded with the explicit goal of raising the qualifications of university teaching staff. Today one must have a doctorate to obtain a teaching post in a Brazilian university. This criterion does not apply in South Africa.
Public universities in Brazil levy no tuition fees. They are free to entrants, who must sit highly competitive entrance examinations.
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Neither of these criteria applies in South Africa. Brazil set out deliberately to improve higher education top-down.
It should also be noted that up to 75% of its PhD graduates are absorbed into higher education and state research institutes, with very few going into industry. And merit also applies to obtaining a position in the public service. To get more PhDs out of our universities we need more suitable students, competent supervisors and more staff.
Eliminating tuition fees would be a first and easy step to attracting more students.
But what does it mean to “double the number of scientists”? Does this mean a doubling of those working full-time? If so, one must factor in that most academics are part-time researchers, so that the increase in the number of academics would have to be much greater than twofold and perhaps even fourfold. Fine. We advertise nationally and internationally to attract the best. The foreign graduates we now send on their way to Geneva and Seattle through their homes somewhere in the Southern African Development Community or Africa can be taken on as part of this new staff complement. But someone will have to pay for the increase in staff numbers. That someone is the government.
All that says something about the supply side, but what about innovation, which responds to the demands of the market and society? And what is the role of research in innovation and development? Two other country experiences may help our thinking.
Basic research played a relatively minor role in South Korea’s industrialisation; the same is true for China’s present role as factory of the world. Indeed, both countries advanced in a similar way: strong authoritarian governments, insistence on meritocratic appointment to the public service, especially for teachers, the development of quality education and training systems, close alignment between government, business and banks—and the suppression of trade unions.
In this way South Korea, in the space of a generation, moved from imitation to innovation. China has experienced a first generation of state capitalism and is now moving from manufacture under licence to the development of its own product lines, with telecommunication companies ZTE and Huawei leading the charge. It is essential to realise that the shift towards product innovation involves many activities, only one of which is research and development, and the latter comes late in these country-development cycles.
Expansion is long overdue
Increasing the number of scientists means a dramatic expansion of higher education and the state research institutes or science councils. This is long overdue, because both sectors have languished over the past two decades. Such expansion is the business of government.
By contrast, expanding the research activities of the business sector is beyond the diktat of the state. Business will expand its research activities and introduce innovations when these make business sense.
There must, however, be a zone for discourse, especially when state funds are to be used to fund research and development, develop prototypes, introduce innovations or radically scale up production.
Business, government, higher education and civil society need to combine efforts to agree on specific subsectors in which the potential for innovation is good, new markets may be accessed and new employment possibilities arise. We cannot afford a repeat of the pebble bed reactor debacle, which was engineered far from public scrutiny.
South Africa is not starting from the same initial conditions as a South Korea or China, however. In a way we are closer to Brazil. Our broad achievement in the sciences has contributed to our food security, expertise in mineralogy, Sasol’s conversion of coal to polymers and gas to liquid fuels, our expertise in telecommunications and financial services.
Historically, 20% of our total research expenditure goes towards basic research, on a par with Hungary, Poland, Spain and Portugal, countries with deeper industrial bases than we have. Most of our basic research occurs in the universities (46%), followed by government labs (31%) and business (23%).
Basic research is open-ended inquiry that keeps our teaching at the cutting edge. It requires the skills gained through doctoral studies.
But there is a need to shift emphasis. In Brazil, for example, more than an eighth of doctoral students are in agricultural sciences; not so here.
Perhaps the huge issues of environmental sustainability and poverty we face may be the catalyst to promote the shift from “blue sky” basic research to what Princeton’s Donald Stokes termed “use-inspired basic research”. Such a shift would link the universities more strongly to the practical and the social and align them more closely to the process of creating innovation.
Professor Michael Kahn is an independent policy analyst. He is a research fellow at the Centre for Research and Evaluation on Science and Technology at the University of Stellenbosch and serves on the ministerial review committee for the national system of innovation.