Minister pushes to centralise funding for science

The department of science and technology is trying to reinstitute the old "science vote" to ensure that research within government is adequately funded and managed.

A "science vote" is a lump sum earmarked for science and research which would be disbursed by the department.

The question whether science councils, namely the Agricultural Research Council and the Medical Research Council, should remain under their line departments, agriculture and health respectively, was first mooted by former science and technology minister Naledi Pandor in 2011, when she argued that bringing them under the department of science and technology would ensure that they were adequately funded and correctly managed.

Both councils have experienced declining funding in recent years. Last year's ministerial review of science, technology and innovation also questioned whether science councils should not be moved into science and technology.

Scientific output and research and development are key to the department of science and ­technology's 10-year innovation plan, as they are seen as ways of boosting South Africa's global competitiveness, creating jobs and improving quality of life.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom told the Mail & Guardian earlier this month that his department was preparing a "proper case" for a science vote "which we can take to Cabinet". However, he emphasised that this would happen only after consultation with the relevant line departments.

"It's not that we want to take control. We're worried about declining allocations (to research and development) in the departments … because it is not their priority," he said.

South Africa previously had a science vote, which was scrapped in the early 2000s. Rob Adam, who was director general of the department of science and technology at the time, said that it had caused problems.

While the department of science and technology allocated funds, there was no way of forcing accountability within a council or directing the research that was dictated by the council's line department, he said. The system was changed so that individual departments were given sectoral allocations to drive their own research.

"With all good intentions, the governance model we have at the moment has had negative effects," Hanekom said, pointing out that funding allocations and research often depended on who was in charge at the time.

He said that his department was considering an overall science budget, a model that was not identical but similar to the previous mechanism.


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