Findings of a recent analysis of South Africa's scientific performance show that the country increased its research output between 2000 and 2010.
Prof Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria. (Image: University of Pretoria)
South Africa has also more than doubled its publication numbers in this period, improved its international publications ranking by two positions, and was ranked 33rd in the world.
These findings were published in a research paper by Professor Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, in the South African Journal of Science.
In his paper, Science in South Africa: The dawn of a new renaissance? figures for the 10-year period between 2000 and 2010 show that the country has more than doubled its paper publication numbers, from 3 617 in 2000, to 7 468 in 2010.
However, publishing South Africa's achievements in the area of research isn't just about flaunting impressive numbers. Our growing publication profile has important implications and numerous benefits for the country.
"Rising research output is an indicator of economic growth and development of the country," Pouris says.
He explains that there is a relationship between the research output of academics and economic growth, which can influence policies aimed at improving a country's research performance.
In another study investigating this connection, also co-authored by Pouris, he points out that knowledge accumulation is considered one of the key factors affecting the productive capacity of a country, and its capacity for international competitiveness.
This is where South Africans can benefit.
The results of his study show that if research undertaken in a country can promote economic growth, it is an incentive for the science and technology community to motivate for more resources and funding.
Increasing the country's academic output means universities have more postgraduate students, and as these numbers grow tertiary institutions can employ more academics. He says it also indicates that the education level of employees in South Africa is improving.
The role of government funding
Government-led interventions are one of the main reasons for the upward trend in South Africa's published research figures. Pouris suggests that the Department of Education's new funding formula, implemented in the 2004/05 financial year, has proved successful in encouraging South African academics to publish more research.
The new formula has increased financial support to higher education institutions according to postgraduate numbers and publication output. For each peer reviewed article produced by a staff member, the university would receive about R120 000 (US$14 500).
Prof Doug Rawlings, acting vice-rector for research at Stellenbosch University, agrees that research output has increased as a result of this incentive.
"This is a huge incentive for universities," Rawlings says. "It also makes a major contribution to our funding."
Although this particular funding model has its flaws, Pouris's study notes that South African universities are transferring some of those financial incentives to individual researchers.
His paper argues that while the funding formula fails to recognise differences in publication patterns among disciplines, it has the potential to become an effective funding method, if some changes can be made to the policy.
He also recommends that the government relooks at the issue of possible disproportionate support to research-weak universities in the form of development grants.
Other government interventions that were introduced during the decade under review, which are likely to have made a valuable contribution to research productivity, include the Department of Science and Technology's (DST) 10-year innovation plan in 2007 and the promulgation of intellectual property laws to encourage entrepreneurship and research activities in public universities.
The DST also established the Technology Innovation Agency and the South African National Space Agency in 2008.
Other funding sources
Although corporate support for research is aimed primarily at targeted projects rather than an investment in science generally, it is an important source of funding nonetheless.
Funding from international donors is also on the rise. "Funding to research global issues is growing," says Rawlings.
He explains that research priorities focussing on issues highlighted by the millennium development goals attract funding from organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
Tweaking the country's research focus
Pouris says there is a need to improve research in certain fields. "We argue that there are particular disciplines where we can do better - such as engineering and technology - which are still underemphasised research areas."
Research in these disciplines is often neglected and the entry barrier is high as researchers need more resources such as expensive technology and equipment.
He added that to bolster research even further, it is important to increase the number of students who enrol for tertiary education. Internationally, 50% to 60% of all students between the ages of 18 and 24 complete higher education, whereas in South Africa this figure is only 18%.
"We have to expand the number of students going to university," he says.
Rawlings says it is important to balance research priorities in South Africa to ensure that both local and international research is prioritised.
In South Africa there is a pressing need to continue local research into issues that are unique to the country, such as the conservation of fynbos in the Cape regions, and HIV/Aids.
"We are very strong in these areas," he says.
Research to support the country's key industries such as mining or agriculture is also on-going.
South Africa's growing research output and participation in international research is also important to boost the country's credibility as a participant in the global research arena.
"If South Africa has credibility in multinational projects we can play a greater role," he says.
Rawlings anticipates that South Africa's role in multinational research initiatives with global significance such as fresh water resources, global warming and energy will expand.
Programmes such as the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, which was recently jointly awarded to South Africa and Australia, as well as the Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland are both multinational projects where local research talent have a strong presence.
What the research paper makes clear is the importance of funding to sustain the momentum behind the country's research productivity.
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