The National Research Foundation (NRF) recently canned a joint project involving researchers from South Africa and Spain, citing a diversion of public funds to preparations for the 2010 World Cup and the global economic crisis as the primary reasons for cancellation.
Academics have slammed the NRF’s announcement. One researcher from the University of KwaZulu-Natal described the move as a “crushing blow to our international prestige as scientists [which] promises lean and bleak times for university science and international cooperation for several years unless, that is, you are a sports scientist”.
Dr Therina Theron, senior director of research and innovation at Stellenbosch University, captured a wider mood when she said that “although the academic community strongly supported the development associated with the World Cup, serious long-term damage” is envisaged if the already insufficient national investment in research is reduced even further as a result of any event.
“Scientific research and the building of highly skilled human capacity require a long-term and consistent approach. Any diversion of funding away from research, regardless of where the funds are diverted to, will result in a loss of highly skilled academic staff, a lack of ability to train adequate numbers of postgraduate students nationally and the reduced ability to effectively perform innovative research — It will take the South African research community many years to recover — long after the euphoria of the World Cup event has passed,” she said.
Although the South Africa-Spain joint science and technology research agreement is one of 30 similar projects managed by the NRF, the research community said the cancellation of this initiative was indicative of wide-ranging problems at the agency, which has the task of supporting and funding research organisations and their work.
These problems include a decline in real terms in the core funding received from the department of science and technology and a new funding strategy, which has diverted funding from general research to national priority areas. The funding crisis was highlighted in a recent article in the South African Journal of Science.
On an operational level the research community has raised concerns over the service levels of the NRF. These include a lack of well-trained staff at the NRF, inadequate processes in terms of peer reviewing of applications for funding, inadequate communication and ineffective management in the process.
The absence of a chief executive for seven months has also had a negative effect on the agency, meaning there are high expectations from the newly appointed head and previous vice-president, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, to tackle the crisis.
Researchers have called on Van Jaarsveld and new Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor to lobby the national treasury to ensure that funding levels for research do not decrease further.
Professor Robin Crew, vice-principal of research and postgraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, said it was critically important that the government — in line with those in Europe and the United States — increased rather than decreased funding as part of any economic recovery plans.
Dr Marilet Sienaert, director of the University of Cape Town’s research office for self-initiated research, said that because investment in the knowledge economy took a long time to yield results compared with the spectacular and visible results of short-term government investments in areas such as infrastructure, it ran the risk of being less attractive to spend on.
But in the meantime the problems at the NRF are already taking their toll on knowledge production.
Theron said that many of Stellenbosch University’s productive researchers do not fit into any of the NRF’s new funding programmes or were excluded this year because of a lack of funding and are “falling through the cracks”.
In the longer term researchers cannot plan, young researchers faced with a lack of funding are starting to consider opportunities abroad or alternative careers and academics have to start reducing postgraduate student numbers as they cannot continue to provide them with proper research training, she said.
Neither the NRF nor the department of science and technology responded to questions about the difficulties. The NRF asked Higher Learning to contact the department of science and technology about the problems and the department referred Higher Learning back to the NRF.
But the NRF said that the call for proposals in terms of the South Africa-Spain agreement have been “postponed” awaiting only the finalisation of the budget and that this is “by no means unusual”.