The Great Hall at the University of Witwatersrand.  Picture: THE TIMES
The Great Hall at the University of Witwatersrand. Picture: THE TIMES

SIX out of 10 postgraduate bursary applicants are rejected, according to the National Research Foundation (NRF), South Africa’s main academic funding body.

This echoes the findings of the ministerial review of the science, technology and innovation landscape, which said South Africa’s academic funding was woefully inadequate.

Research and development (R&D) is a key driver of economic growth, competitiveness and job creation, and is the foundation for a knowledge economy. It also allows for the development of human capital, which is seen as a way to address the skills shortage in the country.

Despite the goal of increasing R&D expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product to 1% in 2008, expenditure continued to fall short, at 0.93% in 2009-10, according to the Department of Science and Technology.

At the moment, the NRF receives about R1.6bn annually, with the lion’s share coming from the Department of Science and Technology.

Last week, Bernard Nthambeleni, the NRF’s executive director for grant management systems administration, said that six out of 10 postgraduate bursary funding applications were turned down. "We need at least R5bn to make a difference."

The NRF had submitted a proposal to the government to triple its research budget to R5.9bn to become more globally competitive and to develop a new generation of high-end skills.

"(The) NRF proposal centres on a significant increase in the country’s current investments in human capital development at the high-end skills level by tripling the size of the active science workforce in the country," reads a document entitled Scaling Up the South African Research Enterprise. "The expansion will make it possible to generate 1% of global R&D output … to produce some 6,000 PhDs per annum."

This proposal was submitted to the minister of science and technology in 2011.

Former science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said last year the government wanted to increase the R&D percentage of gross domestic product to 1.5%.

However, Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation, said on Monday that even tripling the NRF’s R&D budget would not be enough. "Even if you tripled the budget, the research in universities in the country would still be underfunded.

"While all countries in the world are increasing their R&D budgets, in South Africa we are static."

According to the NRF’s proposal, which CEO Albert van Jaarsveld presented to Parliament, "the nation employs only 1.5 researchers per 1,000 people employed (based on 2009 figures)". It produced just 27 PhDs per million of the population each year and contributed 0.55% to the global R&D output.

At the moment, only about 30% of South Africa’s researchers and academics had PhDs, which meant that these academics could not supervise research projects and be involved in the generation of more PhDs.

Attempts to contact the Department of Science and Technology for comment were unsuccessful.