Opinionista Michael Kahn 12 August 2019

Political intervention must drive SA’s science innovation

The rebranded Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) joins the newly-created Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology (MHEST). What might this new positioning and designation imply, and what might one expect of the emphasis on innovation?

The June Cabinet appointments created the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology (MHEST). This merger was originally recommended by the 1996-1998 Presidential Review Commission on the Public Service. The MHEST announcement saw the Department of Science and Technology join the MHEST as the rebranded Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). What might this new positioning and designation imply, and what might one expect of the emphasis on innovation?

Similar ministerial mergers have been forged in many countries to boost their innovation system performance – the European Union has a Directorate-General for Research and Innovation; New Zealand has a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment; the UK a Ministry for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation; Brazil a Ministry for Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication.

In our case, the MHEST reminds of the De Klerk administration whose Ministry of National Education included budget responsibility for higher education, science councils, as well as white schooling, arts, culture, language, heritage, and sports. That conjuncture allowed for a modicum of financial co-ordination, but excluded other ministries, and the state corporations.

The creation of MHEST has the potential to harmonise the allocation of research funds to the universities and science councils. Coordination of science and innovation budgets across government was granted to the Department of Science and Technology from 2004 onward, with limited outcomes. Whether its successor will fare better remains to be seen.

The department adheres to the innovation system approach as declared in the 1996 White Paper. Today’s innovation system shows continuity with its pre-1994 origins: the then-leading universities lead; the autonomous science councils go about their own tasks; business performs R&D and innovates; all this in an economy dominated by commodity exports, the decline of manufacturing, and the complementary rise of the services sector.

What is overlooked is that former president Thabo Mbeki’s “two economies” have been joined by a third, the offshore economy of South African transnational corporations such as Sappi, Sasol, Shoprite, and Standard Bank. The Forbes List 2019 of the world’s largest firms places Standard Bank at No 315, and Naspers at No 318. Anglo American is ranked 261, but is now listed as a UK entity.

The innovation system contributes highly skilled personnel for national and transnational efforts, generating research findings and codified intellectual property.

Over the past two decades, SA’s world share of scientific publications rose from 0.44% to 0.88%, no mean achievement given the stellar rise of Chinese science. Much of this rise in South Africa’s publication count arises from participation in international Big Science projects in nuclear physics, health sciences and astronomy. The recent induction of Bernard Fanaroff (astronomy) and Salim Abdool Karim (infectious diseases) as Fellows of the Royal Society attests to excellence in these fields.

In large measure our diversified “bio-medical” research system allows individual scientists to follow their dreams. This emphasis is revealed in the fact that 27% of total R&D expenditure is on basic research. At a similar stage of economic development, South Korea was spending only 5%. Yet diversification provides a benefit in the form of expert advice available on request or through own initiatives. The downside is that critical mass is generally elusive, so that promising research may dissipate when a lead researcher migrates or passes on.

While international patent awards are static in number, foreign trademark registrations have soared, and plant cultivar registration remains strong. These activities reflect the path dependence of the economy and innovation system. In large measure, we continue to do what we have done before. We export dirt, and foreign-designed motor vehicles, and import the technology needed to do so. Among the above, plant cultivar development is a critical resource, the more so as climate change impacts, with implications of water scarcity, and new pests.

The 2019 Global Innovation Index ranks South Africa at 63rd (down from 54th in 2012), and it is among the top-performing middle-income countries. SA trails the other BRICS nations, and is below Malaysia and Mexico. Yet for international patents we are ranked second (by far) to China, explaining how it is that we are regarded as an “innovation achiever” that performs better than expected relative to our GDP. The expansion of the third economy attests to the innovation activities of our transnationals.

What then is the role of the Department of Science and Innovation? Three issues present. A constant worry for policy is that R&D expenditure relative to GDP at 0.8% is far below the National Development Plan’s 1.5%. The main cost driver of R&D is research personnel with associated current expenditure, so that reaching 1.5% implies more researchers. This offers the potential to achieve critical mass. Increasing the researcher stock happens in two ways: “growing one’s own” and through immigration. The first is happening slowly; the second is blocked by immigration law. The first is within the span of influence of DSI; the second not.

The second policy concern is the relationship between innovation and publically-funded research. This is a bugbear in all economies. Simply put, if a significant proportion of publically-funded research is directed to demand-led problem solving, then the connection with a business or social innovation becomes more likely. Continuing with supply-side funding, “give us the money and we shall give you results”, is wishful thinking.

The third issue is innovation in the sphere of local government. For local government fully to support local ecosystems requires a mix of smart navigation of law and regulation, and constitutional change. DSI has some space to influence the first; the second is part of a cumbersome process.

Addressing these issues requires political intervention at the highest level, so one awaits the inception of the new White Paper “Ministerial Structure” with interest. It is that body that must drive the process across the innovation system. DM

Professor Michael Kahn is a policy analyst and evaluator of research and innovation. He has maintained a lifelong commitment to development – of people, systems and self. To meet these goals, he has served as advisor to the Ministers of Education, and Science and Technology, was Chief Director (Informatics) in the Gauteng Government, Acting Director of the Centre for Education Policy Development, Professor of Science Education in Botswana and South Africa, and an Executive Director of the Human Sciences Research Council. He is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of its DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy, and Extraordinary Professor of the University of the Western Cape.

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