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Breaking down the ministerial review of science, technology and innovation

by Sarah Wild, October 19 2012, 08:29
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Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

TWO years ago, former science and technology minister Naledi Pandor commissioned a ministerial review of South Africa’s science, technology and innovation (STI) landscape. We’ve broken the 238-page report down into bite-sized chunks — what the committee has recommended and where it is inevitably going to fail.

The report explains what is wrong with the STI system and where is it performing. You can look at it here.

So, this committee has made recommendations, and the review has been tabled in Parliament. Some of the recommendations appear to be moving chairs around the room; others are simply wishful thinking. Some would make a real difference.

Structure

Through a process of amalgamation and creation, the committee recommends the establishment of a National Council on Research and Innovation (NCRI). This 15- to 20-person body, which should be chaired by someone high up in the government such as the deputy president, would set the agenda for the National System of Innovation and be responsible for oversight, evaluation and monitoring. In short, this is the octopus that hangs over everything in the system.

Inside its brain, like a benign tumour — independent but reporting to the main body — would be the Office for Research and Innovation Policy (the former National Advisory Council for Innovation). Its job is recon: undertake studies and collect data and intelligence about the system, so that the NCRI can make decisions.

It would perform a function that our national innovation system desperately needs — provide information and statistical data, so that we can see where things are working, what field needs more money, which research avenues are underperforming and so forth, and help the council make informed decisions.

The Academy of Science of South Africa, an independent body of scholars and scientists that generates evidence-based solutions to South Africa’s problems, needs to be expanded.

The Department of Science and Technology would become the muscle, co-ordinating policy and systems that would allow the NCRI to implement its decisions.

To continue with the possibly misguided octopus analogy, it has three arms: post-school education and training; business and enterprise development; and social development and social innovation.

Moreover, government departments must be encouraged to improve service delivery through research development and innovation. But, introducing what is a recurrent theme in this report, it doesn’t really say how.

Things that need to be reviewed

It is a bit concerning that the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), which only got a CEO about two years ago, is already up for review. Actually, the recommendation is a bit harsher than that: the agency “should immediately be externally reviewed in terms of its ‘fitness for purpose’”.

The TIA was created to bridge the “innovation chasm” between idea and commercialisation. Since South Africa doesn’t have a venture-capital culture, it is imperative that this agency works. If it doesn’t, then it needs to go and its funds be reallocated. The same fate looms on the horizon of the National Intellectual Property Management Office, although it “should likewise be formally reviewed after a further period of initial functioning”.

In fact, a number of recommendations call for further reviews and strategies to be drawn up: whether science councils should stay under their line departments, such as the Medical Research Council (Department of Health) and the Agricultural Research Council (Department of Agriculture), as well as technology services such as forensic labs (police); the state of research knowledge and capabilities in the private sector and state-owned enterprises; and an infrastructure road map (because a lot of research infrastructure in South Africa needs to be upgraded or developed), including cyber-infrastructure.

Also, the whole system needs to be reviewed again in 10 years’ time.

Academia

The review has great things to say about the National Research Foundation’s Research Chairs Initiative, and recommends that more funds be allocated to research chairs, centres of excellence and multidisciplinary institutes. I wrote earlier this year about research chairs.

There is a recommendation to expand South Africa’s SCIelo collaboration, and subsidise national licensing of e-access to high-impact core commercial journals. Read more about South African academics’ difficulties accessing international journals.

Additionally, the review suggests that more academic jobs are created, although it doesn’t say in which institutions, if certain institutions or fields should get priority, and how to fund it.

Money

Perhaps the most important question in all of this: where is the money going to come from?

The report moots a return of the Research and Innovation Vote (South Africa historically had this vote, but it was done away with in 2005), so that all research organisations and institutes would be able to bid for money from a central cookie jar. It also argues that sectoral funds, such as Department of Trade and Industry research funds, be pooled.

Then there are the R&D tax incentives. On paper, it’s a great idea, but in reality there hasn’t been a great take-up. Find out more about the scheme here.

And then the companies that usually do take advantage of these incentives are big companies, rather than the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that the government is trying to promote. So the report recommends that these incentives also include SMEs and make distinctions based on size and sector, and that the incentives should be increased. However, it doesn’t say where this money should come from.

Similarly, it calls for “more imaginative and flexible sources of public capital support for innovation, such as low-cost loans, replacement of loans as grants, renunciation of state equity components, access to publicly owned buildings and land for zero cost”, without saying where this money would come from.

On the academic side, it recommends that R&D funding be “significantly increased” in higher education institutions, with a particular focus on the best-performing groups and those that yield postgraduate students.

But where will this money come from?

It is possible that funds would be found in a most streamlined system. At the moment, South Africa is putting more money into its National System of Innovation, without getting proportional increases in output. This is one of the main arguments for the restructuring suggested in the report.

Handwaving

While the review’s recommendations on institutional reform are very specific — “this body should exist and it should do this” — some of the recommendations, specifically those dealing with business, are vague. For example, recommendation eight says: “Systematic efforts should be made to bring industry and government closer together.” How?

Similarly, “business/industry should be encouraged and incentivised to increase its R&D expenditure, probably as much as 50% more than present through much more pervasive triple and quadruple helix formation with government/science councils and higher education institutions, involving extensive outsourcing of the R&D required for business innovation”. How?

The report does mention the private sector: “Private business/industry is the most important source of finance for, and performer of R&D, and a key strategic partner for government to engage with in promoting R&D investment in the country.” But there were only two members of the private sector on the committee that undertook the review.

This appears, from the outside, to be an egregious oversight, continuing a pattern of paying lip-service to businesses without actually asking them what they need to increase their R&D.

One of the business people included, Business Leadership CEO Michael Spicer, says that a very important recommendation was to “draw people with direct experience of business, civil and research environments into the government”. And that’s true: a business person in government would be a babel fish, helping to translate business-speak into government-ese and academican.

And with some very frantic handwaving, we have “everything possible must be done for South Africa to become the preferred destination on the African continent for R&D-related foreign direct investment”.

That statement is an absolute no-brainer. What would have added to the conversation was suggesting how this could be achieved.

Mission: impossible

There are some aspects of this report that hit the bull’s eye — they are actions that are necessary and important — and most of them will never see the light of day. There are a number of recommendations on structuring the tertiary education system and the need to “double, triple quadruple” further education training colleges. All of that falls into the realm of possibility.

South Africa is in dire need of human capital, and the review suggests measures to deal with that. Two of the main ones are: declaring teaching at all levels an essential service (to try to deal with the deteriorating quality of students coming out of our secondary schools and the fact that if a teacher goes on strike for weeks, or months, it will hinder students’ ability to pass), and relaxing immigration and employment laws to allow foreigners to compete on an equal footing with South Africans for jobs.

Declaring all level of teaching an essential service — in a country with a crisis in its basic education system — seems to be a fair recommendation. But here is a story detailing the vociferous opposition of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (a partner in the ruling political alliance) and the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union.

In terms of the immigration and foreigner employment policy, the report recommends that “the potential of local firms, higher education institutions and science councils to recruit high-level staff from other countries should be facilitated and optimised through appropriate legislation, regulation and administrative practices”.

However, Cosatu’s response was simple: “We have a country with mass unemployment. We have to prioritise our own people.”

Then there is the sticky issue of intellectual property (IP) regimes. The report says simply: “Immigration policy and intellectual property regimes need to enable the openness of National System of Innovation”. It is a bit disappointing that, once again, it couldn’t have been more specific — IP is an unwieldy beast, and some specific guidance is exactly what South Africa’s science, technology and innovation landscape needs. Read more about South Africa’s intellectual property issues here.

Where to now?

Now, we wait. The Department of Science and Technology is analysing the review and the feasibility of its suggestions. Let’s just hope that the power at the top has the clout to implement most of the recommendations in a very politically and economically contentious space.

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