/ 27 July 2018

Scientific research is SA’s future

Countries, particularly on the African continent, need to provide the resources for scientific research aimed at resolving problems such as those brought about by climate change and poverty. (Alaister Russell/Gallo Images/Sowetan)

The recently published Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans 2018 line-up offers an interesting revelation, in that at least 40% of those identified are in scientific research, both natural and social, or related fields. It could be said that society is starting to become aware of the value that science and scientists provide the country. If this is indeed the start of a trend it will bode well for South Africa as it develops its knowledge economy.

South Africa needs evidence-based solutions if it is to overcome the challenges it faces. Challenges such as poverty, inadequate education, inequality, limited access to water, energy, climate change and other matters require practical answers developed by thinkers who take an evidence-based approach to problem solving.

The 200 Young South Africans cast speaks to a possible future where leaders in both the public and private sectors will innovate as well as inspire innovation in their particular fields to create unique solutions that not only work well but which may also be exported and applied elsewhere in the world in similar situations.

The need to build a diverse scientific workforce is recognised in the National Development Plan, and is seen as crucial for the African continent. Rwandan President Paul Kagame talks about investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) skills to create an innovation ecosystem that can be leveraged to build national and continental competitiveness.

Kagame emphasises that the pursuit of the Stem subjects should not be limited to simply acquiring information and performing well in exams. Rather, insights gained from the pursuit of Stem should shape the evidence-based solutions required to uplift the millions of African citizens in particular, and those from the developing world in general, out of the poverty and inequality that generations have been subjected to.

Although both women and men should pursue the Stem subjects and careers, women are affected more by limited investment in encouraging and supporting their development in these areas, African women more so. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), women account for only 28% of the world’s researchers and this figure is even lower in Africa.

The 2015 Unesco statistics show the country with the lowest percentage of women scientists in Africa is Guinea, at 5.8%. Only in Lesotho and Cape Verde are more than 50% of researchers women. In South Africa, about 40% of scientists are women. Though this is good news for the country, we must ask if women scientists are supported in developing their careers to the same extent as men. Are they able to make contributions to the country’s development to their fullest extent?

Imagine if South Africa were to translate the scientific 40% of the M&G’s 200 Young South Africans into 40% of the population. The possibilities for the country would be endless. Granted, such an expectation is, in all practicality, a pipe dream. No country in the world can expect to produce that number of scientists. But taking a look at, for example, Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, with regard to the Unesco Institute of Statistics figures for 2015, the number of researchers in research and development (R&D) per million population are as follows:

• Brazil: 1 176

• Russian Federation: 3 101

• India: 215

• China: 1 176

• South Africa: 1 113

Although it might seem that we fare relatively well in Brics countries in absolute terms, the situation changes when one consider the population sizes of our Bric partners. The situation becomes even worse when considering the figures for countries such as the United States at 4 231, Britain at 4 299 and South Korea at 6 899 researchers in R&D per million.

Human capacity and infrastructure are the two areas South Africa must build if it is to compete at the same levels as its Bric counterparts, let alone the industrialised countries.

Historically South Africa has had a huge imbalance in human capacity in terms of race and gender, which still exists, although more black and women researchers are entering the field at considerably higher rates than previously. Unfortunately such efforts are being hampered by a basic education system that does not encourage enough pupils to take up Stem subjects.

Research infrastructure also suffers from such imbalances, and these manifest in our highly stratified higher education system, where some universities have limited access to even the most basic research infrastructure. As a result, the country has maintained far too few research-intensive institutions, and almost no access to resources for the majority of students considering careers in research.

This is not to say that nothing is happening to address these imbalances. The opposite is true and considerable progress is being made. The National Research Foundation (NRF) addresses these areas through investment in research platforms and infrastructure and, more importantly, in researchers themselves, by supporting established and emerging researchers as well as nurturing the next generation of scientists.

Transformation plays a pivotal role in the NRF’s shaping of South Africa’s science cohort through specific programmes developed to achieve better representation among local scientists and equality of access to research resources, funding and infrastructure.

We know that our efforts at building our local science cohort are bearing fruit by looking at the increase in research output. South Africa’s publication output in the Web of Science has increased from 3 668 publications in 2000 to 15 550 in 2016, translating into an average annual growth rate of 2.9%.

Although the improvement in South Africa’s research output and the quality of that output — as indicated by the increase in the citation of articles by South African researchers — is something to be lauded, particularly in the context of constrained public sector budgets, more can be achieved.

A critical success factor in elevating South Africa’s research standing and the contribution of research to the improvement of the quality of life is greater investment by all sectors of society in developing a science cohort. The fact that investment in R&D as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) has remained stagnant at about 0.7% is something that Science Minister Mmamoloko-Kubayi Ngubane has bemoaned; she has urged for a movement towards the 1.5% of GDP target by 2020. In this effort, private sector investment in the development of the necessary scientific skills is crucial, not only for the country’s competitiveness but also the global competitiveness of the private sector itself.

Science, not just politics, should be leading the charge against the problems facing South Africa, and scientists need to be able to position themselves strategically to not only help the country to innovate but also to influence government’s science policy. As society begins to recognise more and more the benefits that science, and researchers, are providing, hopefully we will see more demand for the people whose skills can lead South Africa

Dr Molapo Qhobela is the chief executive of the National Research Foundation, an independent statutory body. Its mandate is to support and promote research through funding, human resource development and the provision of research facilities for the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology