Scholarly initiative to boost SA’s AI research

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 13 Dec 2023
President Cyril Ramaphosa engages innovators at the CSIR.
President Cyril Ramaphosa engages innovators at the CSIR.

Government has established the Presidential PhD Initiative through an initial R1 billion investment from the National Skills Fund.

President Cyril Ramaphosa made the announcement yesterday during his address at the inaugural Presidential Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Plenary at the CSIR.

The STI Plenary brings together leaders in government, industry, academia and civil society, to discuss the progress of the national system of innovation and challenges in this sector, and explores ways for STI and skills development to impact positively on the South African economy.

Latest insights show South Africa’s STI landscape is faced with an aging workforce, with fears that many will soon retire and be out of the system.

Ramaphosa told delegates that for science, technology and innovation to effectively serve SA’s economy and society, there needs to be aggressive and strategic investment in education and skills development.

Therefore, the aim of the first phase of the Presidential PhD Initiative is to expose the country’s “brightest young minds to cutting-edge thinking and research” by negotiating opportunities at world-leading universities and research centres, he explained.

“Their studies will be linked to large-scale and established research programmes, both in public research facilities and in industry.

“The programme will build critical skills in areas like artificial intelligence research, advanced biotechnology, fuel cell development, batteries and other storage, and next-generation mining.”

While there is an initial investment of R1 billion towards the presidential initiative, the president extended a call to the private sector and international partners to assist in growing the investment to R5 billion by 2030.

“It is when we truly invest in research and development that we will be able to grow our economy at a much higher level.

“As we reflect on the potential of science, technology and innovation to contribute to South Africa’s national priorities, we need to work collaboratively and ensure synergy between programmes across the national system of innovation.

“We must harness education, science and innovation to protect our natural environment, drive inclusive economic growth and enrich all areas of human endeavour.”

South Africa aims to raise the level of R&D investment to 1.5% of GDP.
South Africa aims to raise the level of R&D investment to 1.5% of GDP.

During his address, the president indicated the country’s performance is mixed with respect to the factors that drive innovation, such as education expenditure, expenditure on research and development (R&D) and access to information technology.

While SA has set its sights on raising the level of R&D expenditure to 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), the country lags behind in achieving this target.

The nation’s spending on R&D was last at its highest during the 2017/2018 period, when it amounted to R38.7 billion.

In 2021, according to Ramaphosa, gross expenditure on R&D in South Africa was 0.6% of GDP. This pales in comparison to countries like the US and South Korea, where R&D spend of GDP in 2022 was 2.6% and 5%, respectively.

As a result, the president notes the need to “significantly increase” investment in research and development, as the country builds on the investment in young people.

He added the situation needs to be turned around. “Through greater cooperation between government and industry, we can reverse this trend.

“At the South Africa Investment Conference earlier this year, minister Blade Nzimande presented the early results of the innovation fund initiative, where the state has partnered with business in supporting technology-based SMMEs to commercialise their products.

“So far, through this initiative, we have succeeded in attracting R6 from the private sector for every R1 invested by the state. Building on our many strengths, we can do much more.”