We need an ide­o­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion

How to en­sure ex­cep­tional science and maths ed­u­ca­tion, which is vi­tal for the coun­try’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

Finweek English Edition - - CONTENTS - ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za Jo­han Fourie is as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in Eco­nom­ics at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity.

in­no­va­tion is the bedrock of a pros­per­ous econ­omy. Con­sider the Spin­ning Jenny, in­vented by James Har­g­reaves in 1764. It was a sim­ple tech­nol­ogy that al­lowed pre­dom­i­nantly women and chil­dren to be far more pro­duc­tive in pro­duc­ing yarn: in­stead of one string of yarn at a time, the Spin­ning Jenny al­lowed a spin­ner to work eight spools at once. Fur­ther de­vel­op­ments in­creased this num­ber to 120. (Today’s equiv­a­lent would prob­a­bly be your col­league show­ing you a code that sud­denly re­duces hours of man­ual data work to the in­stan­ta­neous press of a sin­gle key.) It’s quite ob­vi­ous that one of the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tions in eco­nom­ics must be about how so­ci­ety en­cour­ages in­no­va­tions like the Spin­ning Jenny (or your col­league’s soft­ware pro­gramme).

Stay­ing with the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion: The causes of this re­mark­able up­swing in hu­man pros­per­ity will prob­a­bly be de­bated for­ever, but a new gen­er­a­tion of eco­nomic his­to­ri­ans sug­gests it wasn’t the clas­sic fac­tors of pro­duc­tion that we typ­i­cally as­so­ci­ate with growth: ac­cess to cheap re­sources (al­though that was nec­es­sary, but not suf­fi­cient), high lev­els of skills (again, nec­es­sary but not suf­fi­cient) or trade. King’s Col­lege Lon­don PhD stu­dent An­ton Howes sug­gests that an ide­ol­ogy of in­no­va­tion made the dif­fer­ence. He de­fines this ide­ol­ogy as a com­bi­na­tion of the men­tal­ity of im­prove­ment (Bri­tish men try­ing to im­prove ev­ery­thing they en­counter, from spin­ning yarn to writ­ing love letters) and the com­mit­ment to ad­vanc­ing im­prove­ment (an “al­most uni­ver­sally-held com­mit­ment to spread­ing and dif­fus­ing in­no­va­tion”). A crowd of 18th-cen­tury Elon Musks.

In­no­va­tions are, of course, be­com­ing in­creas­ingly tech­ni­cal. But not ev­ery­one has ac­cess to ro­bot­ics, nan­otech­nol­ogy or lab­o­ra­to­ries needed to in­vent the next big thing. And even if we did, we’d need years of train­ing. A new pa­per in the Re­view of Eco­nom­ics and Sta­tis­tics by two Fin­nish econ­o­mists shows science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and maths (STEM) ed­u­ca­tion is crit­i­cal in pro­duc­ing in­no­va­tors. They use a novel tech­nique (the dis­tance Finns live to the near­est tech­ni­cal univer­sity) to show that bet­ter ac­cess to uni­ver­si­ties – but es­pe­cially uni­ver­si­ties of­fer­ing en­gi­neer­ing de­grees – is essen­tial for gen­er­at­ing new patents, and thus in­no­va­tions. They cal­cu­late that three new tech­ni­cal uni­ver­si­ties re­sulted in a 20% in­crease in Fin­nish patents, boost­ing tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, growth and liv­ing stan­dards.

Much has been writ­ten about the af­ford­abil­ity of uni­ver­si­ties in SA. In a re­search pa­per I co-au­thored with Es­tian Calitz, we show, for ex­am­ple, that the costs of ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion is today nearly three times higher than in the 1960s. Even so, de­mand out­weighs sup­ply and many stu­dents are turned away at univer­sity gates. Those that do en­ter of­ten base their choice of ca­reer on their ex­pe­ri­ences at school or their friends’ opin­ions. Ev­i­dence of un­in­formed choices is pro­vided in a pa­per by Eco­nomic Re­search South­ern Africa’s (ERSA’s) deputy di­rec­tor Biniam Bedasso. He shows that black stu­dents at UCT tend to choose less math­e­mat­i­cal cour­ses in con­trast to their white peers (con­trol­ling for a host of co­vari­ates) be­cause of the poor qual­ity of maths at high school and be­cause few of their friends choose STEM de­grees. White stu­dents with sim­i­lar high school marks as the black stu­dents are there­fore more likely to fol­low STEM cour­ses.

This pref­er­ence for non-STEM cour­ses by our bright­est black stu­dents is wor­ry­ing. It means the ide­ol­ogy of in­no­va­tion will be lim­ited to a tiny and un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive slice of the next gen­er­a­tion of South Africans. And the ben­e­fits that in­no­va­tion brings – for ex­am­ple, sell­ing a ground-break­ing patent to a com­mer­cial en­tity – will be lim­ited to a few, fur­ther ex­ac­er­bat­ing in­equal­ity.

What to do? It’s easy to say we need bet­ter maths and science teach­ers and re­sources in high schools, but for many rea­sons this is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to achieve. My ad­vice would be to build them from scratch: imag­ine the im­pact of 50 fully equipped, state-of-the-art tech­no­log­i­cal schools that each pro­vide free tuition (and ac­com­mo­da­tion) to 500 kids in ru­ral ar­eas, of which 100 ma­tric­u­late each year. At­tract ex­cel­lent teach­ers by pay­ing them well. The 5 000 kids who an­nu­ally grad­u­ate from these schools with top marks in maths and science should be fast-tracked into SA’s top uni­ver­si­ties and, if pos­si­ble, spon­sored to study at the world’s best uni­ver­si­ties. The suc­cess of these role mod­els will in­spire oth­ers in their com­mu­ni­ties to pur­sue a ca­reer in maths and science.

Ob­vi­ously more can be done to ex­pand STEM ca­pac­ity at uni­ver­si­ties too. #FeesMust­Fall may be too ex­pen­sive in the cur­rent fis­cal cli­mate, but what about #STEMFeesMustFall, at least for those un­able to af­ford them? Cre­ative in­cen­tives to at­tract skilled in­no­va­tors and en­trepreneurs from abroad, to sup­port the devel­op­ment and com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of new patents, and to open ex­port mar­kets for these prod­ucts and ser­vices should also be con­sid­ered. The suc­cess of SA’s fu­ture econ­omy de­pends on us pro­duc­ing the sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers that can repli­cate ex­ist­ing tech­nolo­gies and in­no­vate new ones for the lo­cal con­text. The ide­o­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion we most des­per­ately need is the one that ex­alts in­no­va­tors as the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of our age. Our col­lec­tive eco­nomic free­dom de­pends on it.

Three new tech­ni­cal uni­ver­si­ties re­sulted in a 20% in­crease in Fin­nish patents, boost­ing in­no­va­tion, growth and liv­ing stan­dards.

The Spin­ning Jenny was in­vented by James Har­g­reaves in 1764, an in­no­va­tion that in­creased

the pro­duc­tion of yarn.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.