Funding for science research diverted

A multibillion-rand plan to boost South Africa’s scientific research has taken a knock, after the Science and Technology Department (DST) failed to secure R180-million in funding for this year from the national treasury.

Robin Drennan, the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) executive director of grant management, said there had been “a massive delay” in the allocation of new research positions. The Mail & Guardian understands that the department lost out in a bidding process for funds, which treasury allocates according to priority areas.

The department launched the South African Research Chairs Initiative three years ago to create world-class research positions at all universities. The intention was to reverse the brain drain and decline in research output, and tackling equity issues. The NRF is the agency implementing the initiative.

The target was to set up 210 chairs by 2010, representing an investment of close to R10-billion in research capacity over the next 15 years.

Since the initiative’s launch 70 chairs have been allocated. However, only 18 of the 70 chairs planned for this year will be awarded through a call for applications later this year. This will increase the number of chairs to 88, far below the target of 140. The reason for the shortfall is the department’s inability to secure additional funding from the national treasury in addition to its baseline budget.

“We suspect that there have been other demands on treasury. This could have been Eskom and the World Cup in 2010,” said Drennan.

He said funding for an additional 70 chairs would have cost R180-million a year. Individual established researchers receive up to R2,5-million a year in a package that includes a mix of salaries, student bursaries and cost of research. The annual grant can be reallocated for a period of up to 15 years, based on a positive peer review after every five years.

However, sources at universities said a spat between the science and education departments over the distribution of the existing 70 chairs has also played a role in the delay.

The sticking-point was reportedly the Education Department’s insistence that the chairs are more evenly distributed across all 23 public universities, despite a policy of distinguishing between research-oriented universities and those focused on learning and teaching.

At present the chairs are concentrated at research institutions such as the University of Cape Town and Wits. In future the research chairs will be allocated to correct the inequities arising from the first awards.

Drennan said a “conversation” between the departments became necessary to ensure there is a “fit” between the chairs and education policy in line with the development of a science, engineering and technology strategy.

Other government departments with science and technology units can also fund chairs, notably health, housing, minerals and energy and agriculture, for research in priority areas. The department, however, remains the coordinating body with the NRF as the implementing agent.

Bheki Hadebe, director of the human capital sub-programme at the DST, said: “During this financial year we lacked funds from the national treasury for new allocations, but we have been looking at our budget request for next year to catch up on our initial target of 210 chairs by 2010.”

Research heads at universities told the M&G that the current chairs already taken up are not in jeopardy and that the department and the NRF are “totally committed to them”.

Of the 70 chairs awarded by last year, 68 had been taken up. Two chairs were declined after completion of the process.

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