Invest in research and development to grow our economy

2012-09-15 11:07

Statistics related to the ­shortage of researchers, low PhD throughput and poor research output in South Africa have been thoroughly thrashed through. Solutions, not expressions of distress, are required. Here are my five recommendations.

Firstly, the retirement age of academics and researchers should be extended.

A researcher at the age of 65 years is still fairly young and it’s a waste of scarce resources to send these skilled people into ­retirement when the country and the economy need their expertise.

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

Secondly, South Africa should establish dedicated research universities. A two-tier higher education system of teaching and ­research universities is called for.

Postgraduate studies and research should take place at the ­University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, the University of Pretoria, Free State University, University of Cape Town and the University of Kwazulu-Natal.

I’m aware a ­proposal like this will yield racially based debate. Some people will ­argue that previously disadvantaged universities are being relegated to second-class status, while the so called “white universities” are being upgraded.

This reasoning is wrong for two reasons. Teaching and research are equally important and feed into each other.

The teaching universities will produce quality students ready to pursue postgraduate studies at research universities.

On the other hand, research in the form of publications will be used by academics at teaching universities for instruction.

The promotion criterion in ­universities has to be reviewed. Historically, academics have largely been promoted because of their research output. This has resulted in teaching being neglected while academics focus on research.

In the proposed teaching universities, academics would be promoted based on the quality of their teaching, whereas at research universities, promotion would rest on the quality of research output.

Thirdly, universities should create part-time teaching and research positions for professionals based in industry. Due to the low salaries in academia, it is difficult to ­attract highly skilled professionals to take full-time positions in the ivory tower.

But academics that contribute appropriate research to industry can still make decent money through consulting. Universities should attract part-time lecturers for teaching and ­research.

Fourthly, the government should make it easy for skilled ­researchers to work here. Affirmative action and employment equity policies should not be applied to research positions. The problem with these policies is that they don’t create new jobs.

A person from a designated group merely ­replaces a white person in an existing position. This is no way to create employment.

If you appoint a skilled white or foreign researcher, their contribution to innovation could create at least 10 new jobs and people from the designated groups would benefit.

The perpetuation of such policies will lead to economic stagnation and disempower the very people they intend to empower.

Lastly, more financial resources should be channelled into research and development. One of the reasons Asian economies are doing well is because they have been investing substantially in research and development.

If South Africa wants to play a prominent role in the manufacturing and knowledge economy, these are some of the measures that have to be taken.

» Dagada is a development economist and author based at the Wits Business School and Sebata Group 

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