How to im­prove re­search and devel­op­ment to grow SA’s econ­omy Ra­belani Da­gada prof­fers five rec­om­men­da­tions to ad­dress the poor state of re­search and devel­op­ment in the coun­try.

Finweek English Edition - - OPINION - Editorial@fin­ is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Vaal Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy.

ashort­age of re­searchers, low PhD through­put, and poor re­search out­put in South Africa has been a con­cern for years. But what are the so­lu­tions re­quired to ad­dress these is­sues? Here are my five rec­om­men­da­tions.

1. Bet­ter the re­search en­vi­ron­ment

If SA wants to im­prove its com­pet­i­tive­ness in this era of knowl­edge econ­omy – then we should re­tain our re­searchers and cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­ages post­grad­u­ate stu­dents to pur­sue fur­ther re­search. There are sev­eral chal­lenges that re­searchers cur­rently face. These are sys­temic and in­clude qual­ity of stu­dents, su­per­vi­sory ca­pac­ity of aca­demics, gov­ern­ment rules and pro­ce­dures, and in­ad­e­quate ac­cess to fa­cil­i­ties and re­sources. But there are also lo­cal prob­lems, pe­cu­liar to in­di­vid­u­als’ his­tory. These in­clude in­suf­fi­cient fund­ing, age of en­rol­ment (some of those who are over 30 suf­fer from the im­mense pres­sure to bal­ance fam­ily and aca­demic com­mit­ments), poor stu­dentsu­per­vi­sor re­la­tion­ship and in­ad­e­quate so­cial­i­sa­tion ex­pe­ri­ences (in some in­stances, stu­dents lack so­cial and aca­demic av­enues that can help them in­ter­act with oth­ers who are work­ing in sim­i­lar re­search ar­eas).

In the knowl­edge econ­omy, SA has to take its in­tel­lec­tual re­spon­si­bil­i­ties se­ri­ously. Many African coun­tries suf­fer from a sig­nif­i­cant brain drain, and this coun­try too will suf­fer hu­man cap­i­tal losses if it does not of­fer the bright­est minds new op­por­tu­ni­ties and political and eco­nomic sta­bil­ity. While lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties do have suf­fi­cient re­sources when com­pared to their other African coun­ter­parts, gov­ern­ment poli­cies and pro­ce­dures are not en­cour­ag­ing grad­u­ates to re­main af­ter com­plet­ing their stud­ies or, for those that are study­ing abroad, to re­turn to the coun­try af­ter grad­u­a­tion. Both sys­temic and lo­cal chal­lenges fac­ing re­searchers em­anate from a dearth of vi­sion and in­suf­fi­cient fund­ing across all lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion and it re­mains an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity for many in SA that a PhD is still seen as a lux­ury.

2. In­vest in re­search and devel­op­ment

More fi­nan­cial re­sources should be chan­nelled into re­search and devel­op­ment (R&D). One of the rea­sons why Asian economies are do­ing well is be­cause they have been in­vest­ing sub­stan­tially into R&D. Es­sen­tially, Asia has over­taken the US in terms of re­search-re­lated in­vest­ments. To see the Asian high-tech skills, crack open an Al­though the com­pany sell­ing it is Amer­i­can, the phys­i­cal com­po­nents that con­sti­tute the iPhone are pro­duced in Asia – the screen is from Japan, the flash mem­ory from South Korea and it is as­sem­bled in China. The US con­tri­bu­tion to the iPhone is the ar­chi­tec­ture de­sign and soft­ware devel­op­ment. Ap­ple uses highly qual­i­fied en­gi­neers to in­te­grate the in­no­va­tions from mostly Asian coun­tries. Asia has em­ployed re­search and tech­ni­cal skills to achieve their level of eco­nomic growth, par­tic­u­larly in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor. The South African gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate SA should both in­vest heav­ily into R&D. Re­searchers in the cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment should also be re­quired to have master’s de­grees and PhDs. The founders of Google and most of its en­gi­neers have PhDs. If SA wants to play a prom­i­nent role in the man­u­fac­tur­ing and knowl­edge economies, these are some of the steps that have to be taken.

3. Af­ford aca­demics longer ca­reers

The re­tire­ment age of aca­demics and re­searchers should be ex­tended. At the age of 65 a re­searcher is still fairly young and it’s a waste of scarce re­sources to send these skilled peo­ple into re­tire­ment when the coun­try and econ­omy need their ex­per­tise des­per­ately. By hav­ing many re­searchers ac­tive in uni­ver­si­ties, re­search in­sti­tutes and cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ments, you would in­evitably cre­ate more jobs for the un­em­ployed through in­no­va­tion. The mat­ter con­cern­ing the re­tire­ment age of the aca­demics has al­ready re­ceived the at­ten­tion of the min­is­ter of higher ed­u­ca­tion, Dr Blade Nz­i­mande. The prob­lem with the South African gov­ern­ment is that it knows what has to be done, but never re­ally get things im­ple­mented.

By hav­ing many re­searchers ac­tive in uni­ver­si­ties, re­search in­sti­tutes and cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ments, you would in­evitably cre­ate more jobs for the un­em­ployed through in­no­va­tion.

4. Utilise in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als in academia

Uni­ver­si­ties should cre­ate part-time teach­ing and re­search po­si­tions for pro­fes­sion­als based in in­dus­try. Due to low salaries in academia, it is dif­fi­cult to at­tract highly skilled pro­fes­sion­als to full-time po­si­tions at ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions. In ef­fect, aca­demics who con­trib­ute rel­e­vant re­search to in­dus­try can still make some de­cent money through con­sult­ing. Uni­ver­si­ties should at­tract part-time lec­tur­ers both for teach­ing and re­search pur­poses.

5. Gov­ern­ment needs to step up

The gov­ern­ment should make it easy for highly skilled re­searchers to work in SA. There is also an ur­gent need for gov­ern­men­tal lead­er­ship in this mat­ter. Rel­e­vant arms of gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing the depart­ment of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy and the depart­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, should be work­ing in con­junc­tion with the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion on im­ple­ment­ing mea­sures to fa­cil­i­tate rel­e­vant R&D op­por­tu­ni­ties. Both gov­ern­ment and pri­vate com­pa­nies should in­vest heav­ily into R&D.

Many of the iPhone’s com­po­nents are pro­duced in Asia.

Dr Blade Nz­i­mande Min­is­ter of higher ed­u­ca­tion

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