Sci-tech summit moves towards co-ordinating research in SA

"The story of human progress is the story of science and technology," Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe told the country's first summit on science, technology and innovation on Saturday.

"Government knows only too well the indispensability of science, technology and innovation, if it must deliver on its historical challenge of addressing social inequality, poverty and unemployment."

The summit was recommended in the 2010 ministerial review into the science, technology and innovation landscape, which was published last year.

The review spoke of a fragmented research-scape, in which there was little communication between government, academia and industry, and that, as a result, there was a lack of co-ordination, agenda-setting and prioritisation.

Business has been investing less in research and development (R&D) in South Africa, and this reduction is moving the country further away from its target of spending 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D.

According to the latest National Survey of Research and Experimental Development, South Africa spent 0.87% of its R2.394-trillion GDP in 2009/10 on R&D. In 2008/09 it spent 0.92%.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said on Saturday: "We've slipped backward [in terms of R&D spend]. One of the reasons is reduced spending by the private sector," adding that this was partially due to the difficult economic times.

"What can we [as government] do to encourage the private sector to allocate greater resources to R&D?" he asked the delegates.

Held in Limpopo, the summit was the largest meeting of science stakeholders to date. It included high-ranking government officials from the department of economic development, environmental affairs, trade and industry, among others, universities, state-owned enterprises, research councils and business, such as Cisco and SAP.

Critical points agreed on included:

  • business needed to strengthen its investment in local research and development, while the government had to clarify its framework for R&D, such as human resource provision, research infrastructure investment, regulatory regimes and policies.
  • broadband costs were highlighted as a major impediment to science and R&D in the country
  • the need for further summits to continue the co-ordination between science stakeholders, as well as the possibility of smaller stakeholder groups to inform the larger summits
  • the possibility of a unitary science vote was also raised, adding to the call for government science funding to be centralised in the department of science and technology
  • skills and education, through "[reflecting] on priorities through the value chain"

It was agreed that the summit should be an annual event, the department of science and technology said on Sunday.

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