South Africa saw a 4,6% increase in the output of medium and high technology manufacturing in 2019 compared to the previous year. This is according to the 2021 South African Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators Report, which was released on Thursday. The report flagged the increase as a step in the right direction, while acknowledging that huge challenges still lay ahead.
Commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), the 2021 STI Indicators Report was conducted within the context of a rampant COVID-19 pandemic which has deepened socio-economic development crises and prompted STI policy renewal worldwide.
Speaking at the release of the report, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Buti Manamela, said that in the South African context, the challenges of inequality, unemployment, poverty and ecological degradation now required even more urgent attention.
There is global consensus that progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals has been affected, with developing countries and emerging economies set to be most exposed to water shortages, food insecurity, premature de-industrialisation and failures in health and social welfare systems.
Need for robust STI capabilities 'more critical than ever'
"These challenges make the need for robust and resilient scientific and technological capacities and capabilities even more critical. In an interlinked but inequitable world, domestic systems of innovation are crucial for transforming science and technology into socially useful products and practices," the Deputy Minister said.
By highlighting progress and lack thereof in selected indicators, the STI Indicators Report aims to serve as a resource for policy makers and researchers both within and without the national system of innovation (NSI).
According to the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the country's average scores are below the minimum benchmark level of 400 for maths and science in both Grade 5 (374 and 324 respectively) and Grade 9 (389 and 370 respectively).
COVID‑19 is likely to exacerbate this situation, as indicated by the pass rate in the 2020 National Senior Certificate examinations, which declined for all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related subjects except for mathematical literacy. NACI has initiated a study, the outcome of which may shed some light on this persisting challenge.
Presenting the 2021 STI Indicators report, NACI council member Dhesigen Naidoo warned that the slump could continue for some time unless measures are put in place to set the country in the right direction.
The evidence also supports the need to prioritise research and development (R&D) activities, as the country is more inclined towards the social sciences in comparison with the rest of the world. The report noted that this was not necessarily a bad focus, given South Africa's history, but that there should also be emphasis on knowledge areas that would stimulate technological development and commercialisation.
Other African countries catching up with South Africa in R&D
The report also shows that while a good foundation has been established in terms of R&D capacity development, other African countries such as Egypt are fast catching up with South Africa.
Some human resources development targets have successfully been attained. The number of full-time equivalent researchers rose beyond the target level of 20 000 to stand at 29 111 in 2018. This count included doctoral and post-doctoral students, whose complement rose sharply across the period of comparison.
However, the system fell short of the 35% target for science, engineering and technology graduates in 2018, attaining only 28,6%, indicating that the pipeline challenges persist despite numerous government interventions.
Among the BRICS group of countries, China recorded the highest R&D intensity (2,19%) in 2018, while India recorded the lowest (0,65%). Israel and South Korea were among the countries with the highest R&D intensity globally, with South Korea reaching 4,81% in 2018.
In Africa, countries such as Egypt and Tunisia are catching up with South Africa in terms of R&D intensity. While South Africa's R&D intensity was nearly double that of Egypt in 2009, by 2018 Egypt's R&D intensity stood at 0,72% compared to 0,75% for South Africa.
The business sector has been the main reason for the stagnation in the country's R&D intensity over the last decade. The R&D surveys show that business expenditure on R&D, as a percentage of gross expenditure on R&D, declined from 53,2% in 2009/10 to 39,3% in 2018/19.
A long road also lies ahead when it comes to developing a pipeline of local innovations. Between 2008 and 2018, South African patent applicants received only between 9% and 12% of the total patents awarded by the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission.
Naidoo said South Africa had important fundamentals that were still functioning reasonably, citing the country's response to COVID-19 as one remarkable indicator of a national system of innovation that was working well. "There is emergency action that is needed, and the White Paper on STI is an example of a good project. We really need to up our game, especially given the current crises we are facing".