Funding for vital research increased

Picture: supplied

Picture: supplied

Published Mar 3, 2024


The gross domestic expenditure on research and development (Gerd) in South Africa has gone up in real terms for the first time in four years, driven strongly by an increase in expenditure by the business sector, according to the National Survey of Research and Experimental Development by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

Despite the upswing, it is short of the government's target.

In 2021-22, Gerd, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of research and development (R&D) intensity, reached 0.62%, a slight increase from the previous year's 0.60%.

Gerd encompasses all spending on R&D on national territory each year. It includes domestically performed R&D funded from abroad but excludes R&D funds paid abroad, such as to international agencies.

In 2015 prices, the growth amounted to a 6.9% year-on-year increase in 2021-22, from R25.965 billion in 2020-21 to R27.756bn in 2021-22.

The government's target was to spend 1.5% of GDP on R&D, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in December 2023. The latest figures also show the country's expenditure on R&D is short of the commitment of African governments to spend 1% of GDP on research to advance Africa's development.

The study found that in 2021-22, the expenditure increase was driven most strongly by the business sector, which is independent of and not directly affected by government budget cuts. However, the recent downscale in funding in the science vote is not reflected in the 2021-22 R&D data but will probably show up in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 surveys.

However, while the growth in Gerd in 2020-21 was welcomed positively by researchers, they acknowledged that the upturn came from a low base in 2019-20, brought on by the economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Glenda Kruss, executive head at the HSRC Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators, said the empirical data indicated that R&D was pivotal in driving transformative advancements, including job creation, heightened productivity and sustained economic growth. Nations prioritising substantial R&D investments tend to excel in global competitiveness.

“R&D serves as a cornerstone for scientific exploration and discovery, expanding our comprehension of the natural world and yielding breakthroughs in medicine, physics, chemistry and environmental science. Innovations stemming from R&D efforts empower countries to uphold or enhance their competitive positions across diverse industries, positioning them as global market leaders.

“Particularly in the health-care sector, R&D in medical research is indispensable for uncovering new treatments, drugs and medical technologies, thereby enhancing diagnostics, treatments, and overall healthcare outcomes,” Kruss said.

She added that R&D was instrumental in devising sustainable and eco-friendly solutions to address environmental challenges, driving the development of clean energy technologies, efficient resource use and strategies to mitigate the impact of human activities on the environment.

Funding for R&D is derived from diverse sectors, public and private, with mutual funding relationships and substantial contributions from foreign funds. Despite budget cuts, the 202122 R&D survey shows that the public sector remains the primary source of R&D funding.

Dr Nazeem Mustapha, HSRC chief research specialist and the R&D survey's principal investigator, said: “The growth in R&D expenditure is reassuring, although off a low base. The previous year's decline in growth represented the biggest fall in R&D expenditure in the 20 years the HSRC conducted the survey. We expect the next survey's result to provide us with a better sense of what the trend is.”

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