Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane
The National Development Plan (NDP) correctly recognises that, for our country to achieve the 2030 goals, we must place science, technology and innovation at the centre of our developmental agenda.

But the Science and Technology Department cannot, on its own, achieve this. It is vital business, labour, academia and government - become involved.

We also need to ask whether the national system of innovation responds adequately to the future - whether all the institutions are still relevant; optimally configured and whether we need to create new institutions.

There have been a strong increase in publications, significant growth in the participation of black people and women in the research and development workforce, and a rise in doctoral graduation rates. However, black women and men still make up less than 5% and 20% of academics. A lot of work still needs to be done.

The question arises: what must be done to ensure that innovation becomes more inclusive at all levels? It is not only limited to human capacity. It straddles the field of human knowledge and the inclusion of alternative knowledge systems. The dominant culture makes the basic assumption that every question can be attained only through a particular method, and that anything discovered outside this method is false and backward.

We must continue to explore knowledge systems from outside mainstream science, including indigenous African knowledge systems. What systems will we need to ensure the indigenous knowledge pursuit, codification and development is modernised?

We have noted, with concern, that the number of patents we’ve been registering as a country has been relatively low. If we intend to convert science, technology and innovation into a primary mover of economic development, we have to spend more on research and intellectual property.

Current gross expenditure on research and development as a percentage of GDP was at 0.82% in 2017. We have yet to reach our 1.5% target. Since 1996, business has been the largest performer of R&D, placing South Africa ahead of some other emerging economies such as Chile and Turkey, but we need significant increases over the next decade.

With the increase in funding, we expect an increase in the intellectual property we produce. Our challenge will be to commercialise this intellectual property.

An analysis of the average rate of conversion of intellectual property disclosures to commercialisation is about 7%. The international benchmarking ranges between 15% and 30%. What mechanisms should we put in place to bridge the gap between invention and commercialisation?

The new White Paper is aimed at helping South Africa to benefit from global rapid technological advancement. Of all the technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence is poised to have the most disruptive impact on the place of humans in economic production. Some research shows that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will lead to greatly reduced human labour absorption. But these new technologies will spawn new industries, meaning that for the time being may not eliminate jobs but redefine them. James Bessen, an economist at Boston University, argues that the history of economics shows that automation can and often does increase jobs, citing the example of ATMs which led to fewer tellers but more bank branches.

Such speculation is an indication that there is uncertainty on the exact impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have an opportunity to ensure that South Africa becomes one of the global centres of science, technology and innovation.

Kubayi-Ngubane is the Minister of Science and Technology. This is a speech she delivered at the STI White Paper Summit.