Increased investment needed for R&D and innovation

The STI 2016 launch event held in Pretoria last week attracted widespread interest from scientists, academics and industry

The STI 2016 launch event held in Pretoria last week attracted widespread interest from scientists, academics and industry

South African business must invest in research, development and innovation in order to tackle the country’s social and economic challenges.

Economist and National Advisory Council on Innovation (Naci) council member Azar Jammine said increasing local innovation can reduce South Africa’s dependence on other countries to produce the goods we need, as this is resulting in a very high current account deficit.

Jammine recently presented Naci’s 2016 Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators Report. The STI report, released annually, provides data about the performance of the country’s system of innovation.

The 2016 report is based on the analysis of the national system of innovation performance during the period between 1996 and 2016. Coincidentally, government is leading a process of reviewing the current 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology and developing the new White Paper on STI, so the 2016 STI indicators report can provide relevant input into the current policy development process.

The 2016 report identifies areas of progress but also points to the lack of progress in certain areas of the national system of innovation. Jammine said the findings were a mixed bag — some negative and some positive. He said the low levels of success in mathematics and physical science in schools remain a cause for concern, as it means there will be a potential shortage of skills to perform scientific work.

According to the report, the percentage of matric learners who passed these subjects with at least 50% remains low. There has also been a decline in the number of female learners in matric passing mathematics and physics with at least 60% from 2008 to 2016.

Unsurprisingly, the undergraduate percentage of Science Engineering Technology (SET) enrolment has remained stagnant between 2005 (29.4%) and 2015 (29.7%).  However, at postgraduate level, the proportion of SET enrolment as a percentage of total student enrolments increased between 2005 and 2015. Jammine said while there have been pockets of excellence, they are not enough to sustain the sectors that require these skills.

The report shows that notable progress has been made in the expansion and transformation of research capacity. The percentage of female researchers (full-time equivalent) increased from 2001/02 (38.4%) to 2014/15 (44.1%). The proportion of female academic staff with doctoral degrees also increased between 2005 (30.4%) and 2014 (39.1%) and the proportion of black (African, coloured and Indian) female academic staff with also increased, albeit only slightly.

Dr Mlungisi Cele, acting chief executive of Naci, said the country is doing very well in the uptake of internet and cellular technology, which is far higher than in most other countries.

According to the report, international benchmarking of mobile cellular subscriptions indicates that South Africa is doing well in diffusing ICT access through mobile cellular devices per 100 people. This is an important step if South Africa is to seize the opportunities and benefits of digitisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution or new production revolution.

Cele said innovation and information and communications technology (ICT) in South Africa has huge potential and must be exploited.

Figures for research and development (R&D) intensity or business expenditure on R&D in the agricultural sector increased from 0.29% in 2003/04 to 0.66% in 2014/15. This is welcome, given the declining R&D intensity in manufacturing and other key industrial sectors on the one hand, and the importance of strengthening research and innovation related to food security on the other hand.

Cele said business must be mobilised to invest in innovation, as it can improve the public service and a host of social challenges facing the country.

Naci has also launched a portal, the National Science, Technology and Innovation Information Portal, a central repository of useful and up-to-date STI data and information within the national system of innovation. This online platform is a multi-year project that is being developed through a phased approach. The first phase is piloting of the portal using the initial set of data. The second phase entails upscaling of the portal to include more features.

For the full report go to www.dst.gov.za or the Naci portal //www.naci.org.za/nstiip/