Science hits the skids

2009-02-23 00:00

South African science has hit the skids, falling behind countries such as Egypt in chemistry, medicine and other crucial areas.

Meanwhile, even the government’s main response to the crisis — a plan to create new industries in fuel-cell technology, space science, advanced metals and others — has stalled.

Recently experts said the country that pioneered heart transplant surgery and the CAT scan had “fallen behind” even in its leading field of clinical medicine, where nearly 100 fewer research papers were published between 2005 and 2006.

A survey by the international Institute for Scientific Information shows that South Africa ranks below Brazil in all 22 disciplines of science and that it has fallen behind Egypt in six areas, including engineering, physics and even in materials science, the field behind South Africa’s successful export of catalytic converters for cars.

It has also fallen below Nigeria in agricultural sciences at a time when the government has indicated major plans to achieve food security for rural farmers and a turnaround for commercial farming.

Although it remains a force in plant and animal science and Aids research, South Africa’s research output has dropped outright in five areas in the period studied —between 2005 and 2006.

Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said: “If you want to be a winning nation, you cannot let your research levels drop. Previously, medical clinicians spent 30% to 40% of their day doing research and teaching and the rest treating patients. Now they spend 85% to 100% of their time dealing with patients.

“The workload in hospitals has grown dramatically, without any change in staffing (numbers), and the Department of Health doesn’t have a particular interest in academic medicine.”

Research was the driving force behind initiatives such as the Working for Water programme, which created thousands of jobs; Sasol’s world-leading coal-to-oil technologies; South Africa’s newly developed electric car and the Pebble Bed Modular Nuclear Reactor.

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, acting president of the National Research Foundation, said the “Research Chairs Initiative”, which funds world-class research in targeted areas, was the primary response to the trend by the Department of Science and Technology.

Although analysts praised the initiative as excellent, Van Jaarsveld said that only 88 research Chairs had been created in three years of the project, falling far short of the target of 210 chairs.

He said that the government had boosted the country’s spending on research and development from R6 billion to around R12 billion a year over the past decade and that it hoped to boost it further to the European standard of two percent of gross domestic product by 2018.

However, he said that he expected little money for research this year.

“The global financial crisis and government priorities of social spending and infrastructure mean it’s going to be a tough year for us.”

Price said that new funding from the Department of Education could help to restore South Africa’s standing in medicine.

“The department deserves credit for giving money ring-fenced for clinical research: it was about R200 million last year, this year it’s around R300 million.”

Price said that South African research has reduced the number of months that new mothers had to be on Aids treatments after giving birth “but we are not doing nearly enough on nutrition [or] malaria —you name it”.

Van Jaarsveld said that a generation of ageing researchers, poaching by the private sector, emigration and higher workloads had also contributed to the crisis.

“The quality of our research re-mains high, but we have been slow in terms of quantity while the rest of the world has been growing in leaps and bounds. We’re running, but many other developing countries are running faster.”

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