SA scientists are ‘white, male and ageing’

Following warnings by his department that South Africa faces a serious scientific skills shortage, Science and Technology Minister Dr Ben Ngubane on Friday said the country faced ”considerable challenges” in this regard.

In a speech prepared for delivery at the start of the science and technology budget vote in the National Assembly, he said government had a critical role to play in promoting education in science disciplines.

”This includes school-level interventions, strengthening tertiary education, and the provision of meaningful careers for the young people who come through the system,” he said.

Meanwhile, his department has cautioned that the country’s ”human resources for science and technology are not being adequately renewed”.

According to a strategy document released by science and technology on Thursday, the backbone of research in South Africa remains ”the white, male and ageing scientific population”.

”This demographic group is not being replaced by younger more representative groupings,” the report states.

The department also notes that a ”complex set of factors, driven largely by globalisation”, has seen reduced levels of investment by South Africa’s private sector in research and development.

”This could result in a loss of local control of the developing knowledge base that underpins the success of our most competitive companies,” the report warns.

Science and technology director-general Dr Rob Adam said that South Africa had seven scientists for every 10 000 members of the country’s labour force, compared to Australia’s 50, Spain’s 30 and Japan’s 100.

The international norm for developing countries is about 14, so ”we need to double our figure”, Adam said.

Currently, South Africa had about 20 000 researchers. In his prepared speech, Ngubane on Friday said the department was to launch a ”Centres of Excellence Programme” in partnership with the National Research Foundation (NRF).

This was intended to increase the number of post-graduate students ”in key areas of relevance and importance to our nation”, he said.

The NRF, which reports to the minister, is a public research organisation tasked with extending knowledge in the fields of science and indigenous technology.

Ngubane said his department would also ”be strengthening our investment in key science areas of enduring value to South Africa”.

This included the fields of astronomy, palaeontology, the Antarctic and the Islands Research Programme, indigenous knowledge and key bio-resources, he said. – Sapa

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Richard Davies
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