Is South Africa’s research prowess sustainable?

Understanding the pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis has won a South African molecular biologist international recognition. Shutterstock

The question of what impact scientific research has on economic development remains a touchy subject for academics and politicians alike. How should the impact of research be measured? What constitutes relevant research? How should funding be allocated?

There are no ready-made answers to these questions. Nonetheless, a number of South African scientists have made their mark internationally over the past 100 years.

Ground breaking work

Alexander Logie du Toit, in his celebrated 1937 publication Our Wandering Continents, contributed towards unravelling the “mystery” of continental drift.

In 2013, through the discovery of Homo naledi, paleoanthropologist and explorer Lee Berger and colleagues found invaluable clues about human evolutionary history.

Homo naledi gave Lee Berger and his team one of the biggest discoveries in science history. University of the Witwatersrand

More recently, ten South African scholars made it onto the Thomson Reuters list of Highly Cited Researchers 2014.

The list features the top 1% – more than 3000 researchers – from around the world with the most cited publications over an 11-year period between 2002 to 2012. It is based on data derived from Essential Sciences Indicators.

Six out of the ten South Africans on the list are based in the country. They include:

  • University of Stellenbosch globally recognised academics David Richardson and Guy Midgley feature in the environment and ecology category. Richardson is a leading scholar in invasion biology. His research focuses on how biological diversity is altered by invasive plants and animals, and the effects these have on the functioning of ecosystems and the services they deliver. Midgley is an expert in biodiversity and global change science. He investigates changes in the global environment that could alter the capacity of the earth to sustain life.

  • University of the Witwatersrand academics Lyn Wadley and Rachel Jewkes were listed in the social sciences category. Wadley’s focus includes cognition and culture in the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa. Jewkes specialises in the interface of gender inequity and gender-based violence and health, particularly HIV.

    • University of Cape Town academics Nicola Mulder and William Bond specialise in biochemistry and environment/ecology respectively. Mulder is an expert in infectious diseases and human genetics, with particular emphasis on the molecular biology of the pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Bond’s areas of interest include vertebrate herbivory, climate extremes, plant-animal interactions and biomes.

Funding and sustainability

Significant strides have been made in South Africa in expanding tertiary education since 1994. But much more needs to be done.

South Africa spends less on education than most countries, including neighbouring Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland.

This lack of investment is evident in the wide disparities between institutions in the country. 21 years after democracy the contrast in resource allocation (human, technological and otherwise) between historically white universities and previously disadvantaged institutions remains significant.

This implies that the achievements in science and technology are not true reflections of the potential that exists in research development and innovation at tertiary institutions. They remain a success story for just a few.

Total public expenditure on education as a percentage of total public expenditure in relation to total public expenditure as a percentage of GDP. UIS, 2011.

Unlocking potential

The government has a clear idea of what needs to be done. This is set out in its New Growth Path policy document published in 2010. The strategy was premised on greater support for research and development and tertiary education linked to growth potential. It sought to transform South Africa into a higher education hub for the continent.

Its technology policy set targets for increased research and development through raising public and private spending on research and development. It also aimed to raise the number of patents from 91 in 2008 to 200 by 2014 and increase the number of professionals and technicians from the current seven per 10,000 people to 11.

But there has been no follow-up on how the country has fared since the document was released.

For the research and development goals to succeed, a 2014 study on the contribution of higher education institutions to the South African economy recommended that an additional R3 billion a year be allocated to research and development.

However, given the current challenging global economic climate, along with the recent #Feesmustfall campaign, sustainability of funding towards the tertiary education sector has become a bone of contention.

Despite acknowledgement that funding is inadequate in the face of the legacy of past inequalities, the short and long-term strategies of funding towards research development and innovation, sadly, remains elusive.


This article was based on a study in the South African Journal of Science.

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