THE Department of Science and Technology on Wednesday allocated an additional R800m over a three-year period towards developing the country’s researchers and making South Africa more competitive.

Research and development is a key driver of economic growth, competitiveness and job creation, and the foundation for a knowledge economy. However, there is a shortage of skilled researchers in South Africa, with only about 30% of academics and researchers in universities and on research councils holding a doctoral degree. This means they are unable to supervise doctoral students.

"The country has a huge backlog and needs more highly qualified researchers and scientists," said Andrew Kaniki, executive director of knowledge management and strategy at the National Research Foundation (NRF), the government’s research funding arm.

"Researchers ... are not only intended (for) or located in universities," he said. "South Africa requires scientists and researchers at different levels — technologists, technicians, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees — in all fields."

The Department of Science and Technology said on Wednesday that it would channel, via the NRF, the additional funds to new-generation researchers (R450m), emerging researchers (R196m) and established researchers (R152m) as components of the human capital pipeline.

"The training is not only for new entrants in science and research, but also to (encourage) those already in university to obtain higher qualifications," Mr Kaniki said.

Of the R450m additional funding for new-generation researchers, R340m will go towards postgraduate bursaries.

"The allocation will enhance funding for postgraduate students by improving per capita bursary values and increasing the number of funded students," the department said.

The remaining R110m will be earmarked for internship programmes.

"One of South Africa’s biggest challenges is the high rate of unemployment, particularly among the youth," the department said.

The department focuses both on the supply of skills and on their absorption into the system.

"The internship programme … has supported the placement of an average of 250 graduate interns annually (since 2005-06)," it said.

The new funding allocation would enable the programme to double its number of interns, it said.