South Africa struggles to meet R&D spend target

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The Department of Science and Innovation’s (DSI’s) National Advisory Council on Innovation (Naci) estimates that South Africa’s gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) in 2018 was 0.68% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Presenting the latest Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) indicators report on Friday, council member and Water Research Commission CEO Dhesigen Naidoo said the global average GERD as a percentage of GDP was 1.4%.


He added that there had been a 0.10% increase in global GERD as a percentage of GDP between 2007 and 2015.

South Africa had been targeting spending 1.5% of GDP on research and development (R&D), but Naidoo noted that South Africa had been “bouncing around” with its GERD for a while.


“We have a band that we are not escaping out of. It will only happen if South Africa can realise the bridge between STI and socioeconomic development.”

The GERD percentage of GDP was 0.88% in 2007, 0.72% in 2013, 0.82% in 2016 and now a projected 0.68% in 2018.

Of the overall expenditure on R&D, about 46% was spent in Gauteng, 23.3% in the Western Cape, 2% in Limpopo, 2% in Mpumalanga, 1.5% in the Northern Cape and 25.5% in the remaining four provinces.

Naidoo pointed out that South Africa was the thirty-first largest economy in the world, according to GDP size, but yet the country had the most unequal society in the world.

Compared with global figures, South Africa matched other upper middle-income countries in terms of the production of human capital capacity – formal qualifications – but lagged behind in terms of the deployment, development and know-how of its human capital.

In the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Human Capital Report 2017’, South Africa ranked sixty-fifth out of 130 countries in terms of capacity (level of education) and at eighty-sixth for know-how and specialised skills, which Naidoo said was good.

However, South Africa ranks at number eighty-seventh out of 130 countries for overall human capital, at 109 for deployment or skills application, and at 90 for the development of next-generation skills.

Naidoo further pointed out that 44% of researchers in South Africa were female, while the global average was 33%, which showed that progress had been made in terms of gender equality.

Meanwhile, in 2016/17, government for the first time exceeded its R&D budget, with R16.4-billion spent on R&D, while it had a R14.8-billion allocated budget.

Naidoo said government funding for R&D for the higher education sector was on the increase, having risen from a share of 45% in 2010/11 to 56.1% in 2016/17.

Government funding of R&D for the business sector continued to decrease, having dropped from a share of 9.6% in 2008/9 to 2.8% in 2016/17.

“There is a stability of funding, which is good, but to reach our 1.5% GERD target, a big jump is required,” said Naidoo.

Further, 57% of the overall GERD in 2018 was provided by the public sector, with the private sector having provided the balance.

South Africa had 24 158 research publications in 2017, compared with 9 660 in 2008.

Naidoo noted that the country’s top areas of research were infectious diseases, religion, astronomy and astrophysics, plant sciences and public, environmental and occupational health.

“The areas where South Africa has loaded many of its ambitions, such as those related around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are not the areas that the country is above-average at in terms of activity on a global scale.”

The country in 2017 had 350 scientific publications per million inhabitants, compared with 192 scientific publications per million inhabitants in 2008. South Africa exceeded the global average of 307 scientific publications per million inhabitants in 2017.

However, Naidoo said South Africa was lagging behind the average patent applications per million inhabitants for upper middle-income countries.

South Africa had 42 patent applications per million inhabitants in 2008, which had decreased to 38 patent applications per million inhabitants in 2017. The global average patent applications per million inhabitants in 2017 was 592.

Naidoo highlighted that the STI indicators report had in recent years helped to facilitate discussions on the state of STI in South Africa.

The analysis in the report includes indicators that are critical in the monitoring and evaluation of the South African National System of Innovation and its contribution towards achieving the country’s set national objectives.

The latest report was themed around policy coherence within a rapidly changing innovation landscape. Naidoo highlighted the backdrop of changes in South Africa, including the former Department of Science and Technology having been merged with the Department of Higher Education and Training into one ministry; government having accepted the White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation; and the President advocating for an increased role for innovation in the country’s economic development.

DSI director-general Dr Phil Mjwara said the DSI was reflecting on issues such as its strategic role in government, the balance of its funding, facilitating broader innovation policy across government and cooperation on projects led by different government departments.

He added the department was also focusing on how to ensure the necessary expansion of the knowledge enterprise and the skills in the economy.

Mjwara lamented that government was placing an increased emphasis on public sector innovation for the benefit of society.