Innovation key to progressing SA to high-income status – Manuel

15th August 2012 By: Jean McKenzie - Creamer Media Feature Reporter

Minister in the Presidency Responsible for the Natioanl Planning Commission Trevor Manuel on Wednesday stressed the importance of innovation to progress South Africa from a middle-income country to high-income status.

“Science and technology have and will continue to shape development in ways that open up huge opportunities for humanity in general, including poor countries,” he told Parliament during his handover of the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 to President Jacob Zuma.

The NDP 2030 states that South Africa’s science and innovation system is small considering the population of the country and when compared internationally. The percentage of gross national product spent by a country on research and development is often used as an indicator of a developmental stage and South Africa’s figure of 0.92% in 2007 does not compare well with a country such as Norway which spent 1.62% in the same year.

Overall, South Africa’s global competitiveness is challenged by the small research sector and its inability to increase research personnel, research outputs and the number of PhD graduates.

Currently, the natural sciences are the most prolific research area in the country accounting for 36% of the total research output, with the humanities accounting for 21% and the medical and health sciences 20%.

Most scientific output is produced by the universities, which have increased their portion of all scientific output produced in South Africa from 80% in 1995 to 86% in 2007. The private sector produces little scientific output.

The NDP 2030 proposes a number of ways in which the national research and innovation system can be grown and central among these is to “create a common overarching framework to address pressing challenges in the national system of innovation, involving the higher and further education system, State-owned enterprises and private industries”.

The system would require broad common objectives to align with national priorities and the plan suggests that the fields of water, power, marine, space and software engineering also be given special attention.

A transformation of the age, race and gender of research personnel in educational institutions, research councils and private companies is also targeted, with the plan promoting for more funding and capacity development programmes to support young, female and black researchers.

An increase in funding for postgraduates, senior researchers and partnerships between universities and industry is also proposed with a more stable funding model being required for all educations institutions undertaking research, with an aim towards expanding research capacity and research output.

A proposal in the NDP 2030 likely to be welcomed by some educational institutions is that immigration requirements for highly skilled researchers, technicians and science and mathematics teachers should be relaxed and the movement of people, ideas and goods should be encouraged across the Eastern and Southern African region.

Citing the Square Kilometre Array project as an example, the plan also adds that the country should develop a few world-class centres and programmes within both the national system of innovation and the higher education sector over the next 18 years, specifically in areas where the country may have a competitive advantage.

In terms of the private enterprises, the plan urges that government must create an investment climate which encourages the private sector to develop innovative products, services and technologies for both local and international markets. “The freedom of scientists to investigate and of entrepreneurs to innovate is critical. The government must support collaboration between the business, academic and public sectors,” it says.