South Africa’s science, innovation pipeline nears retirement

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 16 Aug 2023
South Africa continues to witness a decline in innovation and R&D expenditure in some key sectors.
South Africa continues to witness a decline in innovation and R&D expenditure in some key sectors.

South Africa’s science, technology and innovation (STI) landscape is faced with the conundrum of an aging workforce.

The proportion of STI human resources increased from 7.3% in 2011 to 10.4% in 2020/21. However, this is mainly staff over 60 years of age (both men and women), reveals higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

This has contradictory indications, says Nzimande. “On the one hand, we must welcome the increase of an experienced research cohort into the system, but the negative side is that they will soon be retiring and be out of the system. It’s both good and bad.

“This trend implies that public universities will lose about 10% of permanent staff with doctoral qualifications due to retirement within the next five years.”

Nzimande was commenting on the 2023 STI Indicators Report, which reflects the performance of the country’s innovation and research and development (R&D) balance sheet.

According to the minister, the proportion of staff aged 20 to 29 declined from 7.9% in 2011, to 5.8% in 2020. He says this raises a question of why young people are not taking up post-graduate studies in STI.

“Although there is an increase in the proportion of staff aged 30 to 39, this increase is lower than that of staff aged over 60. Therefore, there is a need to intensify support to young academic staff through instruments such as the new generation of academic programmes.”

Released annually, the STI indicators report is commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) on behalf of the Department of Science and Innovation.

The report examines investments in research, development and innovation, STI human resources, innovation in manufacturing, digital competitiveness and the distribution of R&D in provinces.

It is compiled with the latest available data from various public and private organisations, and institutions mandated to collect the data. It includes indicators that are critical in the monitoring and evaluation of the health of the country’s national system of innovation (NSI) and its impact on achieving the country’s national objectives.

This year’s findings reflect data for the 2020/2021 period.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

According to Nzimande, the percentage of staff in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has remained consistent over time.

In 2010, the proportion of STEM staff among all staff was 51.5%, which rose slightly to 51.9% in 2021. This finding is not surprising, he comments.

“South African academics, once appointed on a permanent basis, cannot easily be replaced. Given that the typical academic career is around 40 years, universities have often been compared to large tankers, which change course slowly and with difficulty.

“For the percentage of staff in the STEM fields to increase significantly in relation to non-STEM (social sciences, humanities, education, economic and management sciences) staff, it would require many universities to change their organisational design, creating more medical schools, engineering faculties and larger science faculties.

“The envisaged establishment of the new University of Science and Technology in Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, is an example of the type of intervention that is required.”

In terms of the numbers of graduates in science, engineering and technology (SET), the minister reiterates the country does not produce sufficient SET skills for the economy.

“Despite various initiatives over the years to increase the output of SET graduates, the percentage of SET graduates as a proportion of all graduates has remained unchanged over the past 12 years.

“Since 2015, the proportion of female doctoral graduates in the STEM fields has surpassed those of male graduates. There has also been an increase in the production of black doctoral graduates in STEM fields.

“A positive development in the same domain has been the increase in the number of black doctoral graduates in STEM fields. From constituting about one-third of all doctoral graduates in 2010, the share of black doctoral students in STEM fields increased to 44% in 2020.”

According to Nzimande, South African scientists have increased their research collaborations with the US, Germany, UK and Australia, all the other member states of BRICS, and a few other countries (Canada and several European countries).

Investment habits

The country continues to witness a decline in R&D expenditure in some key sectors. South Africa has set a target of 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) expenditure on R&D.

The report shows that STI investments, in terms of gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a percentage of GDP, decreased from 0.75% in 2018/19, to 0.61% in 2020/21.

This indicates a further decline in GERD as a percentage of GDP, when compared to the previous period’s 0.62%.

Remarking on this decline, NACI chairperson Tilson Manyoni says the business sector’s expenditure on R&D has been on a declining trend over the decade and declined further in 2020/21.

Additionally, the business sector's capacity to attract foreign funding is declining overall, and as a share of foreign funding.

The declining business sector R&D expenditure suggests a further decline in the numbers of those employed in R&D in the business sector going forward, according to Manyoni.

“The business sector’s share of the total researches in the country reduced from 15.2% in 2011/2012, to 7.3% in 2020/2021.

“A significant percentage of the population, approximately 20%, qualified as extremely poor in 2020/2021. Lower-bound poverty remains high as well at 29%, with upper-bound poverty at 42%.

“In this light, embedding innovative systems with the country’s policy agenda requires us to deliver solutions to these socio-economic challenges.

“The NACI council and secretariat are hopeful all stakeholders will find the report useful in guiding the future work in promoting innovation across South African society and the economy, and work towards meaningful strategies to enhance the performance and impact of the NSI.”