17 May 2012
South Africa must boost support and funding for research and innovation, and strengthen its public-private sector links, if it is to compete with its developing country peers, says Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.
“We would like to create conditions that will encourage the private sector to invest its research funds in South Africa,” Pandor said during her department’s budget vote in Parliament in Cape Town on Tuesday.
Pandor said South Africa had “very able, world-class” researchers in a range of disciplines, but that, compared to many developing countries, the country did not allocate enough resources to research and innovation.
She said one of the most repeated comments of a ministerial committee report on science, technology and innovation – the Nongxa report, which would soon be published public comment – was that the public science and technology sector needed to strengthen its links with the private sector.
Incentives for private sector research investments
“They also propose an examination of international practice with respect to incentives for private sector research investments,” Pandor said, adding that South Africa needed to draw on lessons from successful emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India.
She said the Department of Science and Technology intended to improve incentives for South African researchers and entrepreneurs, and would be liaising with the board of the Technology Innovation Agency, which is tasked with funding innovation in the country, to develop a framework for an early review of the agency.
Of the department’s R4.96-billion budget for 2012/13, R2.6-billion or 53% has been allocated to its public entities, but Pandor said South Africa needed a significant increase in science and technology expenditure if the country was to meet its national goals.
“We are alert to the economic crisis confronting all economies, but it is vital to increase support for research if we are to retain the critical edge of an emerging world-class research destination,” she said.
However, she said a welcome sign was the insertion of a spending category for science and technology in the Budget Review, which proposes that R10.7-billion – just over one percent of national expenditure – be allocated to science and technology in 2012/13.
To fund local companies to develop technology, the department had also secured a commitment of R60-million over the next three years from the Treasury’s competitiveness fund, announced this year by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
“This will enable us to increase the number of companies we have on our register by a further 50 by the end of this financial year and grow them to 100 by the end of the 2014/15 financial year,” she said.
Fluoro-chemicals, titanium initiatives
The department was also implementing a fluoro-chemicals development programme targeting human capital development, new business formation and the development of novel processes and products.
A multi-purpose fluorination pilot plant had been completed and would be launched this year.
South Africa has an abundant fluorspar reserve and is competent in the handling of fluoro-chemical processes and products, Pandor said, and the government was looking to convert this strategic advantage into increased industrial activity and job creation.
The department had also invested close to R108-million in titanium initiatives, including the commercialisation of a novel process for low-cost production of titanium powder, and over R100-million would be made available for the initiative over the next three years.
Public-private ICT partnerships
Pandor said the country’s research capacity in information and communication technologies (ICT) was also becoming a competitive advantage.
Over the last 18 months, the government had announced targeted partnerships with global ICT companies including SAP, Microsoft and Nokia.
These companies and others had, in the last financial year, invested over R15-million in cash and kind to the government’s ICT research and development programme, which had been matched by government funds.
She said the department hoped to announce a partnership with IBM and one other multinational firm later this year.
Pandor said she would also announce a revitalised bio-economy strategy this year, adding that the department was exploring the possibility of developing human vaccines in South Africa, drawing on the experience of Biovac and other institutions.
“We have initiated a feasibility study on a Cape based biotech park for health innovation, and expect to receive the team’s report in July this year,” she said, adding that the department would continue its support for the country’s tuberculosis vaccine initiative.
The department would also add six new Centres of Excellence to the eight that had been set up since 2004.
Research chairs, graduate programmes
The South African Research Chairs Initiative would be expanded by the addition of 60 chairs, Pandor said, and the department would be partnering with the Swiss government to create two joint South Africa/Swiss research chairs, which would bring the number to 62.
The National Research Foundation had also established an additional 25 post-doctoral fellowships each worth R180 000 a year for three years.
In addition, the first group of 50 interns had been accepted into the department’s one-year science and technology graduate internship programme in partnership with the Da Vinci Institute and the TT100 companies.
The department would spend a further R110-million on the internship programme over the next three years, drawing on the R9.5-billion economic competitiveness package announced in February’s National Budget.
The minister said the implementation of the Scientific Electronic Online (SciELO) open access platform had provided free access to South African academic journals, with 22 journals currently on the platform, and with plans to grow this to 180 South African journals.