South Africa increases share of global knowledge generation

Economist and Naci council member DR Azar Jammine presented the STI 2016 report

Economist and Naci council member DR Azar Jammine presented the STI 2016 report

South Africa’s world share of scientific publications and that of citations is on the rise. The upward trend for publications show an increase from 0.39% in 1996 to 0.69% in 2015. For citations, the world share for these increased from 0.31% in 1996 to 0.91% in 2014, before dropping to 0.89% in 2015.

Scientific publications constitute research outputs such as journal papers, conference proceedings, research notes, etc. Only indexed scientific publications are included in publications data shown in the table below.

The rising trend of the share of publications globally taken up by South African publication data is impressive, but it calls into question why this successful output does not translate into more prolific progress in scientific innovations, and through this, faster growth in the economy overall. There are clearly some fault lines, either in the form of the appropriateness of the research for the economy’s progress, or in the transmission of this successful research output into practical results in the workplace. 

Table South African Scientific Publications

1996 1996 - 2000 2001 - 20052006 - 20102011 - 20152013 2014 2015
Number of Scientific Publications 4 969 25 453 28 624 46 977 75 270 14 890 16 260 17 246
% World Share of Publications 0.39 0.39 0.39 0.48 0.63 0.61 0.66 0.69
% Publications in Top 1% 0.54 0.66 1.04 1.26 1.42 1.69 1.56 1.39
% Publications in Top 10% 6.88 7.33 8.90 9.89 9.54 9.99 10.15 9.32
% International Collaborations 19.72 25.31 36.24 40.13 46.19 45.68 48.16 50.18
Number of Citations 66 649 415 877 552 682 681 624 454 176 94 893 75 991 35 174
% World Share of Citations 0.31 0.35 0.41 0.55 0.76 0.76 0.91 0.89
Impact Relative to the World 0.785 0.899 1.052 1.155 1.202 1.235 1.376 1.287

  Sources: Clarivate Analytics “InCites 2.0” and National Research Foundation

The largest proportion of scientific publications in South Africa is in the natural sciences research field (38.3% in 2015), followed by medical and health sciences (23.4%), engineering technology (15.0%) and social sciences (14.4%).

Agricultural sciences research has been showing a progressive decline over several decades and showed a negative trend in 2014 and 2015 in terms of its share of the country’s total scientific publications. This is despite research and development (R&D) intensity in the agricultural industry of the business sector having risen. A research field that is showing significant growth is that of social sciences, increasing from 8.6% of publications during 1996-2000 to 14.8% during 2011-2015. Publications in social sciences have increased their share in line with the proportionate increase in R&D expenditure.

The majority of universities’ publications comes from traditional universities such as University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Pretoria and University of Stellenbosch. Although the universities of technology produce a relatively small number of publications, their publication output is growing fast. During the period 1996-2000, they contributed only 1.49% of total universities’ publications, but this contribution increased to 4.59% during 2011-2015. This increase is driven by a number of factors, such as the department of higher education and training’s research output incentive, but also the downsizing of this sector, with some being absorbed by the comprehensive universities. 

The merger of higher education institutions negatively affected the research performance of comprehensive universities during 2001-2005 — the number and percentage share of scientific publications by universities declined during this period.

But the research output of comprehensive universities doubled along with that of universities of technology from the period 2006-2010 and from 2011-2015. The dramatic increase in scientific publications from these two type of universities has shifted the focus from technology development to knowledge generation, as the number of local patent applications by South Africans has declined.

Number of Scientific Publications by University Type

For the full report go to:

Catching the digital wave

The global digital revolution has made it an imperative for governments around the world to ensure that citizens have adequate access to information and communication technology (ICT). In South Africa, the government has acknowledged that the ICT environment is dynamic and the rapid technological development is changing how we communicate and access information services. Government has also identified the communications sector as a critical growth sector. The National Development Plan recognises that the ongoing development of quality communications infrastructure, services, content and applications, is key to the rapid economic, social and cultural development of the country.

The government has been working hard to ensure that the country and its citizens are not left behind in the digital revolution sweeping the world. The latest annual South African Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators report shows that the country has experienced a huge increase in the number of mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people. Subscriptions increased from nine per 100 during 1996-2000 to 142 per 100 persons during 2011-2015. By contrast, internet usage per 100 people is still relatively low (51.9 in 2015), though there was a drastic increase in this indicator from an average of 11.7 to 44.6 internet users per 100 people from the period 2006-2010 to 2011-2015. Fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people are much lower (up from 0.9 in 2006-2010 to 3.1 per 100 people from 2011-2015), which is in sync with the low rate of fixed telephone subscriptions per 100 people (down from 9.7 in 2006-2010 to 8.1 per 100 people in 2011-2015). 

International benchmarking of the number of mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people shows strong growth for South Africa over a period of 20 years. There are enormous opportunities in fast-tracking education and skillsdevelopment to exploit the high proclivity towards mobile cellular usage in large, relatively underdeveloped sectors of society.

Information Technology Diffusion in South Africa

1996 1996 - 2000 2001 - 20052006 - 20102011 - 20152013 2014 2015
Mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people 2 9 41 89 142 146 149 159
Internet users per 100 people 0.8 3.0 7.2 11.7 44.6 46.5 49.0 51.9
Fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.9 3.1 3.1 3.2 5.3
Fixed telephones subscriptions per 100 people 10.1 11.2 10.5 9.7 8.1 7.3 6.9 7.7

Computed by the National Advisory Council on Innovation from The World Bank “World Development Indicators”

Compared with other regions of the world the country had a large number of mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people as far back as the period 1996-2000. During that period South Africa boasted nine mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people compared to just three per 100 for upper middle income countries, one per 100 for Africa, two per 100 for Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and six per 100 for the rest of the world. This trend of higher cellular subscriptions relative to other countries and regions of the world continued into the 2011-2015 period.

Sectors such as the taxi industry should embrace opportunities presented by such trends to compete with new global entrants such as Uber, which are using advancements in the Internet of Things to redefine the industry. The introduction of the Uber system in South Africa was met with resistance from the start by metered taxi drivers, and this is ongoing. The opportunity, however, should be utilised to develop local innovations.

South Africa has what is needed to become a leader in software application technologies, with initiatives such as the department of science and technology-funded mLab initiative — a mobile solutions laboratory and startup accelerator that provides entrepreneurs and mobile developers with the support they need to develop innovative mobile applications and services.