Scientists want more money, and our health depends on it
Lack of funding is inhibiting scientists' research and development of health treatments in SA
South Africa’s economy, training of young scientists and health treatments all suffer because of the low level of funding available to researchers, leading academics said.
Earlier this month, the National Advisory Council on Innovation, headed by University of Pretoria vice chancellor Cheryl de la Ray, released figures on South African scientific innovation.
“Research and development investment, as a percentage of gross domestic product, increased to 0.8 in 2015/16, slightly up from the 0.77% recorded in 2014/15. However, this is still far from the target of 1.5% in 2019.”
In 2018, South Africa allocated 0.8% of its GDP towards scientific research, a percentage far lower than countries with many discoveries and strong economies such Germany (3%) , Israel (4.25%) and South Korea (4.23%).
All the scientists who spoke to Times Select called for more funding, citing ageing equipment, outdated IT infrastructure, lack of university positions and old laboratories as real constraints to research.Professor at the Wits school of physics Bruce Mellado explained that all his students working with CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, were snapped up by local companies such as banks and computing companies that needed staff to analyse big data.
“The SA-CERN consortium has become a powerhouse for the training of students in big data techniques, and as a result of the acceleration in recruiting and training of students in recent years, is now directly impacting the South African economy.”
At CERN, physicists and engineers are studying the smallest particles on earth, which make up the most basic structures of the universe.
University of Johannesburg professor of human origins Marlize Lombard said without primary research there is no generation of new knowledge.“Everything we Google to learn about the universe, nature, the human mind, or mechanical engineering ... was originally part of a research project. To give young South Africans hope we must inspire them to become part of knowledge generation, not mere consumers.”
But she said lack of funding kept young researchers out of work. “Our biggest problem is the lack of funding for long-term appointments of young academics at our universities, providing them with the security to be able to invest their time and energy in the pursuit of knowledge.”UCT professor of pulmonology Keertan Dheda said: “Limited funding means that only restricted components of research are performed. It makes South African researchers uncompetitive, it stifles innovation and prevents researchers from addressing questions important to South African wellbeing and progress.”
Dr Glenda Gray, head of the Medical Research Council – which gives grants to scientists – said it does not have enough local public money to support scientists and academics in South Africa.
“The SAMRC receives great requests for funding which we can’t support at the requested amounts, and often have to try and leverage our funding with other countries.”The impact of this meant South Africa didn’t do enough to find treatments for diseases affecting its population.
“For example, we are facing a TB crisis, and we will need new innovations which include better TB drugs, new drugs for multi-drug resistant TB, a better TB vaccine and better diagnostics. All this takes public investment in research.”
Gray said: “A shortage of funding means that it may take longer to do research, it means we have to be less ambitious, and it means we may have to collaborate with other funders and share intellectual property/discoveries with other countries.”
She added that scientific investment was linked to better economies and more wealth.
“The government needs to understand that science is not a luxury, and that countries like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea understood the need to invest in research and development because scientific productivity and GDP are related.”
Lombard predicted that with the immense cash drain out of government funds, “our real struggle is yet to begin”.The scientists say research and innovation are inextricably linked to job creation and economic growth – and without enough money for research the overall economy suffers.
They said projects took longer to complete due to a lack of funding and, because other countries were needed to fund the research, those first-world countries shared the patents created and the money from them.
The National Advisory Council on Innovation 2017 report on South African Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators noted that South Africa still competed globally.
“South Africa ranked 39 out of 127 countries in business and innovation sophistication, a sub-index of the Global Competitiveness Index.”
In her report De la Rey also said private business should also helping to invest in research.