South Africa Promotes Techno-Scientific Development of Its People To Address Human Needs

David Kaplan, economist, University of Cape Town, and expert on South African R&D.

David Kaplan, economist, University of Cape Town, and expert on South African R&D.

South Africa is the leader in African science and engineering by a wide margin. The country of 49 million people is home to world-class techno-science communities specializing in nuclear and solar energy, mining, space and satellite communication, software encryption, coal-to-oil conversion and even electric cars.

No other African country comes close to matching South Africa in even a single area of research and development (R&D). Based on a survey of recently published research papers, the country accounts for 64% of all research undertaken in Africa.

These South African achievements deserve recognition because the country’s techno-scientific establishment has survived a necessary, if painful, transition from an ostracized apartheid regime to democratic rule in 1994 by a government led by the African National Congress party of Nelson Mandela. In the new South Africa, despite political transformation, many professional and academic researchers have thrived. Yet the country has struggled to convert its stellar expertise into social and economic advantages — a troubling experience because millions of South Africans lack decent houses, reliable sources of water and electricity, affordable transport and household energy supplies.

“We’ve had laudable continuity and a lot of surprising innovations, but also disappointments,” says David Kaplan, an economist at the University of Cape Town and an expert on the South African R&D experience. “Yet the question remains, why don’t we perform better?” In his extensive research on outcomes from R&D in South Africa, Kaplan finds “diminishing returns” from higher spending over the past decade.

One major disappointment is that research innovations rarely transform the life of ordinary South Africans or even gain commercial success of any kind at home. One recent dramatic example: Johanna Solar Technology, which makes the basic building blocks of solar energy, was formed in South Africa on the strength of local talent– University of Johannesburg’s Professor Vivian Alberts— but moved to Germany to get closer to a larger market and last November was purchased by the German conglomerate, Robert Bosch GMBH.

The solar-energy example illustrates what South Africans call their “innovation chasm,” or what the government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) describes as “the gap between the local knowledge base and the productive economy.” The innovation chasm, while frustrating, represents a signal opportunity to respond by mobilizing and developing more of its “human capital” – the very South Africans who at once wish to raise their own professional standards and promote techno-scientific innovations that raise the living standards of a country where divisions between haves and have-nots, between rich and poor, stubbornly rank among the highest in the world, according to the State of the World’s Cities Report, released by UN Habitat in 2009.

Phil Mjwara, director-general, Department of Science and Technology, South Africa

Phil Mjwara, director-general, Department of Science and Technology, South Africa

The need to balance urgent demands for socially relevant technologies – a more energy-efficient domestic stove, for instance, over a miniature science lab shot into space –- “is always a difficult balance,” Kaplan says. That’s because of the conflict between social utility and the pursuit of new knowledge for its own sake isn’t unique to South Africa. But over time, many believe, by supporting the intellectual freedom of scientists and engineers, any society will gain the techno-scientific capacity to address insistent social and economic needs.

Improving quality of lives of ordinary people is key. “There are many challenges in the society where science, technology and innovation can play an important role,” Phil Mjwara, director-general of DST said last November. “We want to make sure the social challenges are addressed…. to change people’s lives.”

To its credit, the South African government recognizes what one of its agencies calls the country’s “endemic skills crisis” requires a complex response. On the one hand, high-tech employers must make their needs clearer. On the other hand, basic researchers must continue to receive support.

In 2006, the government created the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (JIPSA), an agency to “accelerate the provision of priority skills” through “broadening the training pipeline, retaining people in skilled employment, and training them more effectively and to higher standards.” While the government’s push to create more and higher skilled people runs across the whole spectrum of the workforce, one of the five designated “high-profile priority” areas is “world class engineering.”

JIPSA’s sunset funding ended in March 2010, but the torch of its mandate was passed on when “South Africa’s deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe announced the newly established Human Resources Development Council (HRDC) as a continuation of the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa). The council wants to ensure the country has the skills needed for accelerated economic growth and social development. It also hopes to improve access to basic education and schooling.

“Motlanthe says that through introduction of the new body, government is not reinventing the wheel. He says some of the work performed by Jipsa will still be carried out by the new council, which will help them to build on what already exists.

“Another challenge for the council, says Higher education Minister Blade Nzimande, is to ensure that all graduates are employed. Nzimande says it is vital that as many of those unemployed graduates are slotted into job openings to help retool and provide appropriate training for them to be employable.

Michael Inggs, professor of radar remote sensing, University of Cape Town

Michael Inggs, professor of radar remote sensing, University of Cape Town

“Nzimande said earlier today that plans to re-skill and train thousands of the unemployed graduates are underway. The minister said parallel to that process, there is a need to review the current education system that has failed to produce people with required skills.

“Nzimande says a government and private sector partnership is required to offer graduates in-service training at the work place. Meanwhile, the HRDC comprises representatives from government, labor, business, Academia and youth groups,” reports SABC News.

In parallel with the push to expand the pool of skilled workers, the government is trying to support the expansion of basic research by identifying five, somewhat esoteric and abstract, “grand challenges”: biotech and pharmaceuticals (“farmer to pharma”), space science, energy, climate change (including earth observation) and “human and social dynamics.”

“I understand the feeling that one should push the relevance of science towards creating equality, but there does need to be an element of leading from the front,” says Michael Inggs, professor of radar remote sensing at the University of Cape Town. “Which is why we are involved in nuclear research, space science, and so on. Having high spots is also a key element in retaining bright people.”

That the goal of social relevance should co-evolve with the practice of world-class science is embedded in the South African government’s perspicacious decision in 2005 to fund 210 “research chairs,” or professorships for leading researchers, by 2010 and 500 by 2018. The aim of the program, which is administered by the country’s National Research Foundation, is “to drive research directions and to create requisite research capacity that is regenerative.”

Elly Grossman, acting head of the Division of Experimental Odontology in the School of Oral Health Sciences, University of Witwatersrand

Elly Grossman, acting head of the Division of Experimental Odontology in the School of Oral Health Sciences, University of Witwatersrand

At least from a standpoint of global quality, South African science “remains competitive and healthy despite many challenges and constraints,” according to a report from the country’s Council on Higher Education, released last October. “In many fields of science we have retained and even increased our international impact.”

Under apartheid, South Africa invested relatively heavily in R&D, partly because the political isolation of the country enforced a technical self-reliance on elites. The government, for instance, supported a large nuclear science program and, in addition to funding research on nuclear power, it also tested and built nuclear weapons. In mining, a sector critical to the economy, the country also was a world technological leader. Prior to 1994, “on the basis of scientific indicators,” South Africa “would unquestionably figure as an industrialized country,” ranked 22 in the world on some metrics, Jean-Baptiste Meyer, author of an authoritative paper on the subject published in 1997, has found. The R&D community in South Africa, Meyer found, compared itself “with big Western countries rather than its African neighbors.”

In the transition to black rule in South Africa a “central place” for science and technology was maintained. Within two years, Meyer concluded: “if the citizens of the ‘republic of science’ had been ‘waiting for the barbarians,’ they found to their relief that the people they are dealing with [in the new ANC government] intended to safeguard many of their treasures.”

Julian Rumbelow, co-author of an annual R&D survey and an analyst at the Human Sciences Research Council

Julian Rumbelow, co-author of an annual R&D survey and an analyst at the Human Sciences Research Council

Preserving the treasure proved relatively easy compared to transforming the racial composition of the people who performed research. “It also has proved difficult to transform the racial profile of the staff at universities,” the Council of Higher Education concluded last year. “While there has been some progress towards greater equity in academic and senior management, staff continues to be disproportionately white.”

Imbalances are narrowing, however, and the main barrier to greater social relevance, as well as greater racial balance, is the loss of talented people to other locations as well as a “pipeline” problem: the need to increase the numbers of students who study and obtain degrees in critical techno-science fields.

“Brain drain is a huge problem in our neck of the woods,” says Elly Grossman, acting head of the Division of Experimental Odontology in the School of Oral Health Sciences at the University of Witwatersrand. “It is as much a migration of highly trained graduates seeking opportunities as the developed nations actively predating on these graduates to supplement their dwindling expertise base. Until global economic inequalities are sorted out, the status quo will remain.”

One answer to the departure of trained talent is to produce more home-grown scientists and engineers and to have jobs for them following their education. To understand the challenge of doing so, consider some essential facts about the country’s existing human-capital in R&D.

South Africa has 23 public universities, of which six are chiefly vocationally oriented. Private education plays scant role in R&D. The public universities employ 41,383 academic staff, of which only 16 percent hold doctoral degrees; another 34% hold masters. So in producing new scientists and engineers, professors with doctorates carry a heavy burden. “South African academics are increasingly burdened with an unrealistically high load of postgraduate students to supervise,” according to the Council on Higher Education.

The number of doctoral graduates, across all fields in South Africa, rose from 822 in 2000 to 1,176 in 2005. But one quarter of those awarded doctorates are not South Africans, according to the Council on Higher Education. In engineering, South Africa is producing about 1,500 a year, according to JIPSA, the skills commission.

Without the development of more human capital, the DST has conceded that “there can be no fresh winds of innovation.”

The problem starts in secondary school, where graduates with higher-grade math number 20,000 annually. To stoke the appetite for math and science in youth South Africans, for example, the government plans to form a “space school” for students in grades 10 through 12

Skills shortages aren’t evenly distributed. “The existing leaders in industry and government get the skills they need, at some cost,” says Kaplan, the University of Cape Town economist.

Harold Annegarn, Department Geology, Environmental Management, and Energy Services, University of Johannesburg

Harold Annegarn, Department Geology, Environmental Management, and Energy Services, University of Johannesburg

One bright example comes from industry, where Sasol, an energy and chemicals company, supports scientists and engineers from their birth to matriculation at the university and into maturity. “They seem to be good at this,” says Julian Rumbelow, a co-author of an annual R&D survey and an analyst at the Human Sciences Research Council, a think-tank.

Many companies, especially smaller ones, are constrained by skills shortages. “Many don’t get the talent they need,” says Kaplan. He studied 20 high-tech firms in 2007 and found that shortage of critical skills “was the major factor inhibiting” their expansion.

The great ambitions of South African science carry great potential and paradoxes. Consider the country’s wide-ranging program in space research and the related area of satellite communications. DST’s Mjwara says he wants South Africa to become a global player in “micro” satellites, building on its SumbandilaSat platform. The government is also leading an African effort to host what Science magazine describes as “the world’s largest scientific instrument,” the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. To lend credibility to its ambitions, in 2006 the South African government committed $250M USD to build an array of radio dishes as a precursor to SKA.

Now people are taking South Africa seriously as a player in space research. Today, the country is believed to have about 60 working astronomers, more than half of all the astronomers working in Africa. ‘South Africa is the jewel of African astronomy,” says Charles H.McGruder, III, William McCormack Professor of Astronomy in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Western Kentucky University.

Skeptics wonder about the benefit of esoteric research, but the work has passionate advocates.   “What on earth is the benefit to the poor and the downtrodden of deep space research?” asks Professor Harold Annegarn of the Department of Geology, Environmental Management, and Energy Services at the University of Johannesburg who has reflected deeply on the role of science in society. “The answer is partly that by supporting a thriving top-level intellectual community, we can train our next generation of intellectuals.”

“They can’t justify a space program by pride. There has to be real applications – relevance,” says Melba Crawford, an associate dean of engineering at Purdue University and Chair of Excellence in Earth Observation.

The potential applications are numerous, says Crawford, who has been assisting the South African program. In addition to using Africa’s unique global position for Earth observation, there’s impetus to build distinctive satellite instruments. And because space requires remote-sensing and communications and control over vast distances, some of the applications might also assist in mining activities and response to natural disasters.

Many of the barriers to the application of scientific research and engineering know-how to urgent human problems are not technical or scientific. There’s scant venture capital in South Africa, for instance. And wide disparities in income mean that the market for poor people is under-served for economic, not techno-scientific, reasons.

The rugged beauty of South Africa’s western cape

The rugged beauty of South Africa’s western cape

One answer is for the government to explicitly support innovations aimed at aiding the poor. One example: the Department of Science and Technology’s new initiative on low-cost housing technologies. South Africa has a shortage of millions of homes and advances are needed to make home-building faster as well as less expensive.“We identified that there is a problem as far as the delivery of housing is concerned and we decided to look at technology solutions to address this problem,” the DST’s director, Mjwara, said in November 2009.

For scientists and engineers, South Africa may represent a golden opportunity in the years ahead, if desired social aims can co-evolve with world-class intellectual pursuits. While researchers worry about becoming too closely tied to outcomes, the ethos of social engagement is spreading. “I’m amazed at the number of academics trying to be relevant,” says Annegarn, the physicist. “Within the broad university, I don’t expect every colleague to work on social issues, but some will do so – and make a difference in human lives.”

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of “The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy.” He writes often about science and technology in Africa and has consulted on African issues for the Gates Foundation.

Works Cited

Africa: Urban Inequality in Global Perspective.” 10/24/2009. “

Annual Report . Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition. Pretoria: Government of South Africa, 2008.
Centre for Research on Science and Technology University of Stellenbosch. “Postgraduate Studies in South Africa: A Statistical Profile”  Pretoria: Council for Higher Education, January 2009.

Science. “African Physicists set their sights on Mammoth Scope.” January 22, 2010.

The State of Higher Education in South Africa. Pretoria: Council on Higher Education, 2009.

Sharife, Khadija. 2008 South African solar panels can solve power dilemma: as South Africa plunges deeper into darkness induced by power cuts, and loses economic productivity, the search is seriously on for alternative, yet clean and affordable, sources of energy. New developments in solar panel technology pioneered in South Africa look very promising, as Khadija Sharife reports The Free Library (December, 1).