Putting knowledge economy first

The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project has inspirational value for young and established scientists alike. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project has inspirational value for young and established scientists alike. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

 To a house composed of supporters from her party, assorted members of opposition parties and a group of guests from -science councils and other entities that are funded by the department of science and technology, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor presented her budget to -Parliament.
The promise of the government spending greater than 1% out of its total R1.1-trillion budget on science and technology has been achieved. Its contribution to the department is R4.69-billion of the R10.7-billion it will spend on the sector in this financial year. Yet the minister has indicated that it is too little to be able to achieve South Africa’s development goals.

The funding that has been given will be used to establish a further 62 research chairs, bringing the total spent on them in 2012 to R302-million. In addition, a further six new centres of excellence will be established. This expansion of successful vehicles for the development of excellence will make South Africa a leader in the fields of research to be chosen and lead to the enhanced production of individuals with doctoral degrees.

In addition, the triple helix of government, university and industry interactions will be encouraged through significant funding to support these relationships and industry will be encouraged to invest more actively in research development.

Underpinning all this engagement in scholarly work is the SciELO (Scientific Electronic Library Online) platform that has been established to publish the work of South African scholars in a manner that is accessible globally. There are now 22 journals on the platform and, in the case of the South African Journal of Science, 130 000 copies of papers have been downloaded, demonstrating the impact of this form of publishing on the accessibility of the information.

Humanities and social sciences
Science and technology have not been narrowly conceived in Pandor’s plans. She emphasised the need to fund research in the humanities and social sciences. She referenced the report by the Academy of Science of South Africa on the revitalisation of the humanities and the Sitas report from the department of higher education and training as requiring thorough study to restore the status of humanities research in universities and their impact on society.  

The initiatives the minister highlighted indicate that South Africa is encouraging a dynamic science system that has every prospect of providing the basis for a knowledge economy in the future. As MP Mario Ambrosini said in the debate, the department has too low a political priority for the impact it has — and could have in the future — and it is hopelessly underfunded.

Apart from some minor political skirmishing, all the political parties endorsed the budget and congratulated the minister on her department’s activities. Her presentation was an engaging and polished performance.

Clearly, parliamentarians believe that the money invested in the department’s programmes are important for South Africa’s development. But the question is: Why is the department not given more prominence in the government and why is it not given more money?

Pandor indicated that she was concerned about the lack of co-ordination among government departments in matters of science and technology and the lack of collaboration between science and technology institutions and the government. She called for decisive steps to improve collaboration and co-ordination.

Political influence
Both the department and the constituency that has a vital interest in the growth of science and technology need to develop a strategy that will enhance the political influence of science in the life of the nation. To do this, they need to demonstrate the impact of their work on the economy and, more importantly, show how scientific understanding and advice can underpin sound policy development and informed choices of policy options.

Respect for independent scientific advice can be the key to improvements in health, education and economic growth. It can also be critical in providing dispassionate recommendations for controversial matters such as the mix of sources that should be used for energy production, fracking, the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, climate change and a host of other issues that confront a modern society dependent on technology for its survival.

Apart from the range of conventional activities that are being supported, the minister pointed out the inspirational value of the leading work that is being done in astronomy and in the development of the Square Kilometre Array. Flagship projects of this kind provide the scientific community with a strong belief in our ability to do world-class research as well as an aspirational environment in which young scientists gain the confidence to be world-class in the same way that young athletes train to be world-class.

Robin Crewe is the president of the Academy of Science of South Africa

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