Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

SCIENCE and technology know no borders. International co-operation is essential for the enterprise of research and innovation to progress. Engagements with international partners not only enable the sharing of experience and expertise, but also constitute a potentially valuable source of foreign investment.

The Department of Science and Technology is leading the effort for SA to increase its annual gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) performed in the country to 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP). Currently, this number is about 0.76% of GDP.

On average, about 15% of the annual investment in R&D performed in the country comes from international partners. To reach the ambitious target of R&D spending of 1.5% of GDP, a significant contribution from science and technology-orientated foreign investment in SA will, therefore, be required.

These dynamics are not unique to SA; countries across the world strive concertedly and compete to attract foreign investment, for example, by offering multinational companies incentives to relocate their R&D activities.

A ministerial committee, commissioned in 2010 by this ministry to review the science, technology and innovation landscape and its readiness to meet SA’s needs, accordingly recommended that every effort should be made to enable SA to become a preferred global science and technology investment destination.

The department has worked concertedly in the past five years to promote foreign investment in SA’s National System of Innovation, the broader collective comprising all public and private sector research and technology organisations.

Efforts by the department include the proactive marketing of flagship national research programmes and projects to international investors, for example, those related to vaccine-or drug-development for the fight against infectious diseases, or hydrogen and fuel cell technology.

The department has worked deliberately and strategically to enhance the value proposition of the National System of Innovation to international investors including through providing incentives, such as tax credits for R&D investment. To attract foreign investment, the department also co-invests with international partners in strategic projects through dedicated funding instruments. Above all, we have worked conscientiously to position ourselves as an accessible, reliable and strategic interlocutor for international partners.

In recent years, the department has on an annual basis leveraged on average close to R500m in foreign investment in the National System of Innovation.

Key partnerships, in addition to those with a range of multinational companies, include co-operation with the European Union, which, through its Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, is a major investor in the National System of Innovation.

Co-operation with foundations and philanthropists has been particularly successful, resulting in major investments. This is a portfolio with rich potential for the future.

Globally renowned philanthropic donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Wellcome Trust, are among the department’s strategic partners. The Gates Foundation, for example, has committed investment of more than R200m in a range of South African health-innovation projects and research programmes focused on improving food security and sanitation. The life sciences sector, in which SA has acclaimed global expertise, is also a beneficiary of the Carnegie and Wellcome institutions.

It should be emphasised that it is not the securing of the foreign funding in itself that is the department’s primary objective, but rather the manner in which these investments complement and support research capacity that other partners might have.

International investment should, thus, in the first instance, be harnessed to contribute to building SA’s knowledge generation and exploitation capacity.

International experience, especially in the developing world, offers disquieting examples of how foreign funding can distort a national R&D agenda away from national priorities. This is a scenario I, and the department, are determined to prevent from occurring in SA.

The benefits of international co-operation in science, technology and innovation also extend far beyond the monetary investment it enables.

International co-operation in science builds friendships, promotes understanding and fosters solidarity across the divisions of geographic borders, political orientations or linguistic and cultural differences.

This is very valuable currency for our fragile planet in these troubled times.

The department will continue to pursue a comprehensive science diplomacy agenda focused on the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure the National System of Innovation plays its part in tackling globally shared societal challenges, such as climate change, food and energy security, pandemic disease and inequality.

This is a strategic imperative for the department, as science and technology truly know no borders.

• Pandor is Science and Technology Minister