SA’s innovation, R&D investment misses targets | ITWeb

Instead of moving towards the 1.5% target of gross domestic product (GDP), SA’s gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) declined for the second consecutive year.

Similarly, the share of business expenditure on research and development (BERD) took a knock, according to the 2022 South Africa Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators Report.

Published annually by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) on behalf of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the report highlights the performance of SA’s innovation and R&D balance sheet.

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The findings of this year’s report reflect data for the 2019/20 period.

For the year under review, GERD as a percentage of GDP declined to 0.62%, compared to the previous period’s (2018/19) 0.75%, according to the report.

In the case of BERD, its share as a percentage of GERD was 31% in 2019/20, less than a third of the last figures reported, reveals the report, noting it should ideally contribute more than half of GERD.

In the report’s foreword, NACI chairperson Dr Shadrack Moephuli notes COVID-19 created opportunities and challenges for the national system of innovation (NSI).

The pandemic also contributed to economic decline in SA, negatively affecting the NSI, he states. “Changes in the levels of investment in R&D affect innovation and economic performance.

“Reduced investments in R&D have resulted in fewer scientific publications, patents granted and receipts from the sale of South African intellectual property.”

Speaking at the launch event, DSI minister Dr Blade Nzimande emphasised that science, technology and innovation has a crucial role to play in the country’s economic development.

Nzimande has been vocalabout the importance of innovation as a key enabler of SA’s economic prospects.

Furthermore, the minister and his delegation earlier this year undertook a week-long visit to Silicon Valley in the US, to gain insights into policy, funding and other interventions that would inform the implementation of SA’s new Decadal Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

Reflecting on the annual report’s findings, Nzimande said in terms of human resources in STI, the proportion of female academic staff at South African public universities increased from 46.4% in 2010 to 50.4% in 2019.

“This is a very important development for South Africa because female academic staff is marginally in the majority.

“Despite this, the number of researchers employed in research and development has been declining since 2018. The number of technicians employed in R&D has also been on the decline since 2015. The proportion of technicians to researchers employed in R&D decreased from 32.8% in 2014/15 to 24.3% in 2019/20.”

The minister added that employment in R&D in the business sector declined slightly more than one-fifth, for the period under review.

On science, technology and innovation investment, the 2021 Unesco science report raised a concern that four out of every five countries devoted less than 1% of their GDP to research and development. Among the BRICS countries, South Africa and India are struggling to reach and transcend the 1% benchmark of GDP expenditure on R&D.

“COVID-19 constrained the already tight NSI-fiscal environment, and the Department of Science and Innovation also experienced budget cuts.”

Turning to government expenditure on R&D, the minister said it has “more than doubled” in the past decade, increasing from R9 billion in 2010/11 to R19 billion in 2019/20. A minor dip in 2018/19 was followed by a large increase of 11.1% in 2019/20.

According to Nzimande, the business sector has been the main reason for the stagnation in R&D, which declined by 29% from the previous year over the last decade.

The R&D expenditure by the business sector as a percentage of GERD declined from 53.2% in 2009/10 to 39.3% in 2018/19, he stated. “This is a huge challenge to our business sector.”

Charting SA’s innovation

The STI indicators report is compiled with the latest available data from various public and private organisations, and institutions mandated to collect the data. It also includes indicators that are critical in the monitoring and evaluation of the health of the country’s NSI and its impact on achieving the country’s set national objectives.

Some of the report’s main findings focus on areas such as R&D expenditure, STI human capital, STI funding, social and economic impacts of STI, and provincial systems of innovation, to name a few.

Moephuli notes the report aims to help organisations and industry stakeholders in their decision-making. It provides insights to investments in the national system of innovation, to enable economic recovery and development.

According to the report, Gauteng had the highest R&D expenditure, followed by the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), during the 2015/16 to 2019/20 financial years.

The distribution of provincial R&D expenditure in SA is concentrated mainly in Gauteng, Western Cape and KZN, Nzimande concurred, stressing much more needs to be done in this respect.

“Innovation support organisations such as incubators and technology stations, which are intended to improve the capacity of innovators and entrepreneurs, are also unevenly distributed, with most located in the same three provinces.”

Nzimande noted that NSI has laid a solid foundation for the future. However, it remains fragmented across government and between business, academia and civil society.

In responding to these challenges, the minister concluded that his department and its entities, guided by the 2019 white paper on STI, plans to further the role of science, technology and innovation in economic and social development, emphasising inclusivity, transformation and partnerships.

“We will implement the white paper on the STI through the decadal plan, which was approved for implementation by Cabinet in March 2021 to serve as a government-wide master plan.”