2009-02-24 00:00

YESTERDAY’S edition of The Witness carried two rather contradictory reports. One was an (unusual) good-news story about the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the achievements of two of its academics on the local campus who have been recognised as leading international scholars in their respective fields. Both biologist Steven Johnson and mathematician Mike Henning have received the coveted A-rating from the National Research Foundation, thereby bringing to five the number of scholars on the local campus who have been so acclaimed. That both are men in their forties with years of productive research ahead of them is an additional plus factor.

However, two swallows do not a summer make. A survey by the International Institute for Scientific Information shows that South Africa’s overall research output is falling and that it now ranks below Brazil in all 22 disciplines of science and that it has dropped behind Egypt in six areas, including engineering, physics and materials science. It has even fallen behind Nigeria in agricultural sciences, which is not good news for hopes of achieving food security. A generation of aging researchers, poaching by the private sector, emigration and higher workloads on those who remain are contributory factors to this unhappy state of affairs.

The government is not unaware of the problem. It needs to do more to address it, however. For instance, it has a target to provide 210 research chairs to fund academics to concentrate on pure research work. Only 88 of these have been set up. Expenditure on academic research might not sound politically glamorous or vote catching, but it is essential if South Africa is to be a winning nation.

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