The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has welcomed the roll out of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by government, which it says highlights the importance of a well-resourced science, technology and innovation system.
“The country can safely store the vaccine, roll it out and monitor its implementation,” the department said.
However, the department raised concerns about the declining investment in research and development (R&D), which remains vital amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the DSI, local scientists and research infrastructure have played a significant role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic since the outbreak.
“South Africa is currently benefitting from past investments made by the DSI in R&D.”
The department said not only has it invested heavily in health and medical research, but also in modernising industries like mining and growing renewable energy technologies.
However, given the immense benefits of past investments, a bigger focus is required across government and the private sector for increased investment in R&D.
“This is particularly critical now, as it is unclear for how long COVID-19 will continue to impact communities around the world.”
The department is calling for investment at a time when South Africa’s expenditure on R&D has declined for the first time since recovering from the dip experienced in 2009/10 and 2010/11.
According to the 2018/19 National Survey of Research and Experimental Development (R&D Survey) published on Thursday, the gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) for 2018/19 amounted to R36.784 billion at current rand values.
This represents a decline of 5% (R1.941 billion) from the R38.725 billion recorded in 2017/18 after seven consecutive years of year-on-year growth.
The information is contained in the latest R&D Survey, undertaken annually on behalf of the DSI by the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), with support from Statistics South Africa (StatsSA).
The department explained that GERD is an aggregated measure of in-house R&D expenditure performed domestically in five institutional sectors, namely government, science councils, higher education institutions, the business sector, and the not-for-profit sector.
“South Africa’s R&D intensity, that is, GERD as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) at current prices, declined 0.83% in 2017/18 to 0.75% in 2018/19.”
Meanwhile, slight growth in R&D expenditure by the higher education sector, of R173 million (1.3%), and by the not-for-profit sector, of R269 million (22.1%), were not enough to offset declines in government and business R&D expenditure.
“Notably, the financial and manufacturing sectors experienced substantial year-on-year decreases in R&D expenditure, of 17.7% and 29.2% respectively.”
By contrast, R&D expenditure in mining and quarrying increased by 58.8%, from R1.101 billion in 2017/18 to R1.748 billion in 2018/19.
While the R&D expenditure by State-owned enterprises (SOEs) declined by R44 million, the contribution of SOEs to R&D expenditure in the business sector increased by 1.3 percentage points to 17.3% in 2018/19.
The proportion of R&D performed in Gauteng decreased from 49.5% in 2009/10 to 42.9% in 2018/19.
Other key headline indicators
South Africa’s total R&D personnel headcount declined from 84 262 in 2017/18 to 84 036 in 2018/19, a slight decline of 0.3%.
Meanwhile, the ratio of 1.8 full-time equivalent (FTE) researchers per 1 000 employed reported for 2018/19 remained unchanged from the level reported in 2017/18.
The proportion of female researchers increased from 27 774 in 2017/18 to 28 401 in 2018/19.
“The continued decline in the number of technicians supporting R&D, in terms of the headcount and FTE, remains a concern.”
The main sources of funding for R&D in South Africa in 2018/19 were government (47.5%) and business (39.5%).
The government sector, which includes science councils and universities’ own funds, sponsored 3.4% less R&D in 2018/19 than in 2017/18.
The business sector’s funding for R&D also declined, by 9.5% year-on-year. By contrast, R&D funding secured from foreign sources increased by 1.6% in 2018/19.
The largest proportion of R&D expenditure in 2018/19 was allocated to applied research at R19.316 billion (52.5%), followed by basic research at R10.364 billion (28.2%) and experimental development at R7.103 billion (19.3%).
By research field, R&D expenditure was concentrated in the social sciences (22.4%), followed closely by medical and health science (21.2%) and the engineering sciences (12.9%).
The R&D Survey offers important information for stakeholders across all sectors to understand the trends in national R&D expenditure and human resources devoted to R&D.
The department said it will conduct a deeper analysis of the 2018/19 R&D Survey results and facilitate stakeholder consultations to contribute to strengthening the country’s national system of innovation.