SA academia edging towards "demographic cliff', says Pandor

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.

South African academia was edging towards a “demographic cliff”, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said on Wednesday.

She was addressing the South African Research and Innovation Management Association.

According to the National Advisory Council on Innovation’s science and technology indicators 2013, the number of high-impact journal publications—influential journals whose contents are often cited—has increased 10% each year since 2003, with an average growth of around 624 publications per year. But the authors of many of these papers are nearing retirement, and research has shown that – despite the growth in publication output – the number of academics conducting research has remained static.

“Back in 1994, the over-50-year-olds only produced one in 10 of credited publications. Now these over-50-year-olds produce five in 10 of our publications” and these people are expected to retire in the next decade, she said.

She pointed to a debate which has been raging in the global academic community about whether the scientists should retire at 65 or be allowed to stay on.

“The evidence appears to be against those who want to go on,” she said.
“The gist of the big-data analysis of scientific papers in specific fields is that scientists are most innovative in their youth.”

In response to a parliamentary questions, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said that his department’s Staffing South Africa’s Universities Development Programme aimed to create 150 new positions for young academics at South African institutions of higher education, 80% of which must be for black women.

Speaking about the globalisation of South African research, Pandor noted that the number of foreign students in the country had increased significantly. “In 2000, there were 60 000 foreign students studying at our universities. Last year, there were 90 000 out of a university student population of 850 000,” she said. “Put another way, nearly one in eight students is a foreigner.”

She said that government intended to “step up efforts to attract postgraduate students and postdoctoral scientists to come to South Africa”.

“International students, postgraduate students, researchers bring tremendous benefits to South Africa and they make an enormous contribution to the intellectual vibrancy and diversity of our educational institutions.”

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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