South Africa’s science system is set for its biggest shake-up in 20 years, amid proposed legislation changes that aim to make research efforts better serve citizens and address problems such as poverty and unemployment.

Policymakers in the government’s department of science and technology are updating the 1996 legislation document that governs the country’s science, technology and innovation activities and agencies. A final draft, seen by Nature, shifts the focus of South Africa’s science sector towards business-led innovation that tackles societal problems and expands the economy. It also reaffirms a key government goal to boost total research and development (R&D) spending from 0.8% to 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the next decade. On 5 September, the document was approved by the government’s cabinet, which will refer the legislation to Parliament, where it will be open for public comment before being signed into law.

“The greater emphasis is on applied and transdisciplinary research,” says Cheryl de la Rey, head of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, which led a 2016 review of the 1996 legislation that has guided the policy revision.

“If we don’t make an impact on the lives of South Africans, then we don’t deserve to exist,” says the country’s science minister, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, of her department. Kubayi-Ngubane, who has overseen the drafting of the latest legislation, was appointed this year by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is widely seen as more pro-science than his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. During Zuma’s nine-year tenure, which ended abruptly when he resigned in February, the nation’s currency weakened, and science budgets struggled to keep up with inflation under government-imposed financial austerity.

South Africa’s science minister, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, is overseeing a revision of the country’s research policy. Credit: Mujahid Safodien Getty Images

Still, South Africa is home to one of the continent’s strongest science systems. In part, that is because the apartheid government, which was in power until 1994, focused on military R&D in an effort to uphold white-minority rule and circumvent international economic sanctions at the time.

In 2015–16, government and private sources together spent about 32 billion rand (US$2 billion) on research (see ‘Science in South Africa’). The government’s science budget accounted for about 14.4 billion rand of that total, supporting 26 public universities and almost 52,000 researchers — figures comparable to those for a highly developed country such as Norway, although South Africa’s population is about 10 times larger.

In recent years, South Africa has also positioned itself as an international player in astronomy, taking advantage of regions with clear skies. Its role in the Square Kilometre Array, a project to build the world’s largest radio telescope, partly in South Africa, has bolstered its publications and citation impact in astronomy and astrophysics.

Business boost

But R&D spending is still nowhere near the 1.5% level, says Kubayi-Ngubane, which is why the new policy hopes to boost business spending on research. “Government can’t do it alone. We need the private sector to come in and spend on R&D,” she says. Countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development spend, on average, about 2.3% of their much larger GDPs on R&D. In these nations, business spending on R&D outstrips government spending, whereas in South Africa, the opposite is true.

South Africa already has initiatives to attract business and promote R&D, but companies have remained reticent. For example, since 2006, the government has offered firms a 150% tax incentive to attract business R&D. But uptake has been slow because the administrative burden discouraged businesses from applying, a 2016 investigation found. To improve matters, the draft legislation specifically instructs the department of science and technology to organize a biannual conference to bring together leaders in business, government, higher education and civil society to identify problems in the system and chart a way forward.

Tangible targets

The revised legislation also aims to improve other elements of the existing policy. The 2016 review noted that the original legislation had been successful in setting up institutions and transforming the demographics of the country’s researchers, which previously comprised mainly white researchers, and that publication output had tripled since 1996. But it found that science and innovation had had a limited impact on the country’s high unemployment rate, which stands at about 27%. Patent output was also low, and research efforts had yielded few marketable technologies.

The proposed legislation now puts explicit goals on producing more university graduates, publications and patents. And on top of large projects, it lays out areas of innovation that it plans to exploit. One is big data — as part of its astronomy push, South Africa has invested heavily in big-data infrastructure, an investment that could, for example, create business opportunities and promote electronic governance platforms to speed up the delivery of services to citizens.

The document also highlights the green economy, which ranges from recycling to clean-energy research, as an avenue for economic development, and as a way to mitigate and adapt to climate change. South Africa has been experiencing a crippling drought, which this year almost saw Cape Town’s water reserves run dry. “Today we deal with issues of drought,” says Kubayi-Ngubane. “So what are the new technologies? Are scientists able to share with us new plans?”

Academic vs applied

John Mugabe, a science-policy expert at the University of Pretoria, says that the 1996 legislation had similar goals for economic growth, but the government has struggled to translate them into action. He suggests that new legislation should differentiate between science policy and technology policy, and believes there should be more emphasis on the latter. “Economic development will only come through enhanced industrial productivity in manufacturing, agriculture and mining,” he says.

One South African academic, who is familiar with the country’s science policy but who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that despite the shift in focus to innovation, academic scientists in the country should continue to receive strong support. “The emphasis is still on science [but] they are trying to bring the business community into the discussion,” they say.

However, the perennial question in South Africa, which has many immediate demands on the national purse, is how to fund its science ambitions. But science and innovation is fundamental to strengthening South Africa’s economy, says Kubayi-Ngubane. “Where do we want South Africa to be in 20 years? Because science, technology and innovation will influence where we will be.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on September 6, 2018.