The discretionary budget of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is key to the future success and sustainability of the organisation. “It allows us to do high-risk research, to maintain our existing capabilities and to develop new capabilities that will be required to address future challenges,” explains CSIR CEO Dr Sibusiso Sibisi. But it comprises less than 30% of the CSIR’s annual budget.
“The bulk of our income is for specific projects, against specific deliverables,” he elucidates. “It’s not just private-sector contracts. A lot of our public-sector income comes from contracts that support government service delivery challenges.” In fact, work for the private sector provides only a small part of the CSIR’s income, as do royalties from CSIR patents.
The biggest single income source is contracts with the public sector. And the CSIR expects that these contracts will grow considerably in value, becoming large-scale and even megascale progammes, such as the development of systems to make the proposed National Health Insurance work, as well as the development of related technologies, such as diagnostic tools for remote clinics.
“Our discretionary income from the public purse is now quite small, and in recent years has not grown much above inflation levels,” he points out. “It would be welcome if our discretionary component were to grow at a level above inflation. At the moment, we run the risk, as the discretionary budget declines, of becoming just a contract researcher, and not doing any proactive research that is required to address current and future challenges. We need the discretionary budget to continue to increase, so that we can continue to do the work that is not short-term. The CSIR risks becoming a technology house focusing solely on service delivery. This [service delivery] is important, but the long-term is also important. There is no other way to finance this [long-term research] except through the discretionary budget.”
Another concern is the need to be able to develop long-term budgets. “It’s not just how much money we have, but the predictability about it. Some things are long-term, like the development of new drugs,” he stresses. “We must be able to do ten-year planning, not three-year medium-term budgets. Not everything needs this [long-term approach] and we can’t hold anyone to ransom – the world economy can change. While in South Africa we do have reasonable predictability, we need longer-term predictability, especially in the biosciences where the realisation of the potential cutting edge technologies requires committed long-term investment. We need to give ourselves at least ten years to develop a product and fund it for those ten years. We’d review it periodically, of course, and ask hard questions on how it was going. But we’re not quite there, yet.”
Despite these concerns, over the past few years the CSIR has successfully strengthened its science base, in terms of both infrastructure and attracting and developing new, young staff and high profile experts. These had been issues of concern identified in reviews of the CSIR carried out in 1997 and 2003 (Sibisi was appointed CSIR CEO in 2002). “We’ve been working very hard on strengthening our science base while retaining good, sound, business practices,” he assures. “This is now all on track and going well. Perhaps we now can demonstrate more explicitly what the benefits are to South African society of science and technology.”
Given that South Africa has a dedicated Minister and Ministry of Science and Technology, Sibisi does not think that the country requires a dedicated Chief Scientific Adviser to government (as, for example, the UK has). “But there should be a way to allow scientific opinion to be raised at the highest level,” he says.
This issue has been taken up by an official advisory committee of the Minister of Science and Technology, which has recommended the creation of a statutory body to be called the National Council on Research and Innovation. This council would be chaired by the Deputy President, with the deputy chairperson being the Minister of Science and Technology, and it would be composed of 15 to 20 members, comprising representatives of the Academy of Science for South Africa and the various science councils, including the CSIR. However, it would, Sibisi suggests, be a good idea to copy and expand the British idea of a Chief Defence Scientist, having such a high-level scientific adviser not only in the Department of Defence but also in other departments, such as the Department of Health or the Department of Home Affairs.