SA NEEDS more academic researchers if it wants to continue increasing its research output, two experts say. However, universities find it difficult to attract and retain postgraduate students.

Scientific output is an important part of the Department of Science and Technology's 10-year innovation plan. It aims to develop the country's knowledge economy to boost economic competitiveness and job creation.

"Research will never be a brilliantly paid career," says the University of Witwatersrand's director for research development, Rob Drennan.

"Many graduates these days want to get a high-paying salary to support more siblings going through university.

"Research doesn't always seem to be an attractive option compared to that," he says.

Romilla Maharaj, an expert in human and institutional capacity development at the National Research Foundation (NRF), agrees: "There is a small pool of human capital in SA and the private sector can offer them more competitive salaries.. At the moment, the few people you do train, you lose to industry."

She is more explicit about the reason for industry's allure: "Many (graduates) come from impoverished backgrounds, with a view to meeting immediate financial requirements."

But both Michael Kahn, professor extraordinaire at Stellenbosch University, and Anastassios Pouris, director at the University of Pretoria's Institute for Technological Innovation, say that increasing the number of academic researchers is fundamental to sustained growth.

"The number of researchers in academia hasn't increased significantly, but the publication output has gone up. This is not sustainable," he says, although he says having leading academics at professorial level as research chairs whose primary activity is to do research and train postgraduate students is a step in the right direction.

"It's a gallant move on the Department of Science and Technology's part.. It's an important initiative," he says.

Since its inception in 2005, the department has invested R1,1bn in the South African Research Chairs Initiative through the NRF, with the total number of chairs now about 150.

There is also the fact that SA's research system is small, in size and budget.

Brazil, Russia and China spend more than 1% of their much larger gross domestic products (GDPs) on research and development, according to World Bank indicators.

In 2009-10, SA spent 0,93% of its GDP on research and development. "When you compare the South African research programme with international standards, we are minute," says Dr Drennan. "We punch somewhat above our weight. In certain areas, we lead the way globally. It indicates that even with limited equipment we can compete."

Dr Maharaj says: "A country has to make choices about investments in priority areas.

"We have to choose areas in which we might be able to be internationally competitive.. Even countries such as the US have to strategise, but they have a lot more money (to spend on research) than we do."

Dr Maharaj agrees that SA needs to increase its research and development spend, but "we do have a responsibility to demonstrate to the community that it is relevant and competitive research". "If we want knowledge generation to have societal and economic benefits, then we have to choose (the areas we fund).. There is sometimes a sense of unhappiness because the larger grants go to strategic areas," she says.

Prof Pouris's paper, titled Science in SA: The Dawn of a Renaissance?, also investigates publication data in SA's main scientific disciplines.

Ignoring multidisciplinary research, of which SA has 1,6% of global published research, plant and animal science is the country's top performer, with 1,57%, of the world's output, followed by environmental or ecology research at 1,39%. Only three scientific disciplines in SA exhibited a decline in their world share between 2000-04 and 2006-10: geosciences (from 1,19% to 1,09%), molecular biology (from 0,25% to 0,24%) and multidisciplinary (from 2,93% to 1,6%).

Dr Drennan and Dr Maharaj say it is not the responsibility of tertiary institutions alone to offer research posts. Dr Drennan says: "To be economically competitive, industry has to stay up to date with the latest technology. A large number of companies believe that technology comes from other countries, and is then fine-tuned for SA.

"A decline in the investment in research by industry has a major impact: the body of academics stays the same, but there are fewer sources of funding."

This is a problem faced by the NRF and academics, which feeds into dissatisfaction about funding. "There are a number of researchers grappling to get funding because the NRF is seen as the primary source of funding," Dr Maharaj says. There are also untapped funding possibilities in the private sector and internationally, she says.

wilds@bdfm.co.za