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Unisa online - Scaling up the South African research enterprise

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld (CEO of the National Research Foundation) and Prof Mamokgethi Setati (Vice-Principal: Research & Innovation, Unisa)
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld (CEO of the National Research Foundation) and Prof Mamokgethi Setati (Vice-Principal: Research & Innovation, Unisa) showing solidarity towards scaling up the South African research enterprise and developing a knowledge economy for the future.
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld (CEO of the National Research Foundation) calling on institutional support in this giant funding venture.
Dr Albert van Jaarsveld (CEO of the National Research Foundation) calling on institutional support in this giant funding venture.
A packed-to-capacity Dr Miriam Makeba Concert Hall of academics proving that the call for adequate research funding is loud and clear.
A packed-to-capacity Dr Miriam Makeba Concert Hall of academics proving that the call for adequate research funding is loud and clear.

With research being a core function of any higher education institution, support and sufficient funding are imperative. Scaling up the South African research enterprise was the discussion brought forward on 14 June 2012 by Unisa’s Research and Innovation portfolio with key speaker, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF).

In response to critical questions posed by Naledi Pandor, South African Minister of the Department of  Science and Technology, the NRF presented their 2015 strategic plan covering details on what it would take to deliver on their ambitious strategic intentions and their response to recommendations highlighted in the Academy of Science for South Africa (ASSAf) PhD study.

Some of the recommendations of the study include expanding levels of funding for doctoral studies in South Africa; eliminating barriers (bureaucratic, administrative, political, legal and structural) that limit the pool of PhD candidates and supervisors; and strengthening relationships amongst universities, industry and science.

Aware of the many challenges that shackle researchers, Dr van Jaarsveld agrees that current funding in South Africa is far too low to become a global force in research. This was the key message shared by the NRF to the Department of Science and Technology and National Treasury.  “We need to change the way we go about our business if we want to become a global force. Our suggestion was we should have available, at least, (not necessarily for distribution) R150 000 more or less per active researcher in the system. This doesn’t mean everybody is funded but it would mean that everybody would be funded substantially. The vision is to support not just 5000 but 50 000 people in the system, hence talks of an enormous scale up in terms of our system and what the NRF are trying to achieve,” said Dr van Jaarsveld.

Regarding the incremental growth of science funding, Dr van Jaarsveld highlighted the current distribution of human capacity development pipeline investment for 2011, where 60% reaches the ‘established generation’, 32% for the ‘next generation’ and 8% for the ‘emerging generation’. Proposed future investment for the year 2020 shows change in the form of 45% being distributed to the established and next generations respectively, with 10% towards the emerging generation.

A large injection towards scaling up the Research & Development (R&D) enterprise was proposed in order to meet the ambitious objective of the NRF by 2020. Investments of creating an additional 198 research chairs across all levels of development; adding 22 more centres of excellence to reach a total of 30; declaring 7 more national research facilities to reach a total of 13; and supporting 65 new broad collaborative science programmes are all steps in the right research direction.

The NRF funding framework proposes that Ministry annually determine/confirm national policy goals and objectives of the NRF and accepts that investments intended to deliver on research related outcomes across the sector are goal orientated, performance-related and output driven.

Dr van Jaarsveld believes there’s assurity in the funding framework as money can be anticipated, there will be effective planning and spending and peer review processes can be done upfront “We want to make sure that the money we put into our research system is spent effectively to produce the kind of outputs we’re trying to achieve.”

The most important aspect of the entire process, according to Dr van Jaarsveld, is institutional support. “I need your support. This investment is good for your business too. You’re the real constituency in which the Treasury is going respond to.” He urged the need to change the modus operandi of the NRF and the Department of Science and Technology. Just as important is moving away from the contract base of funding which makes spending money inefficient.

In conclusion, Dr van Jaarsveld said, “Our current investment in R&D as a system is at such a low scale that we will never become a competitive knowledge economy in a glob domain. We have to bump it up significantly and we have to scale up our investment in R&D so that we can truly develop enough people, enough capacity and outputs that will develop our knowledge economy for the future.”

Sharing her strong approval for such platforms, Prof Mamokgethi Setati, Vice-Principal: Research & Innovation said “It’s so important for us to have these conversations with the NRF because they are our partners in research.”

*Written by Kirosha Naicker



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