South African research funding fourth-highest in the world


Research funding
Energy giant Sasol is the largest funder of academic research in South Africa but still has world class in-house research facilities. (Image: Media Club South Africa)

• Claire Margetts
Times Higher Education

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International businesses grant South African researchers, on average, $64 000 (about R692 000) each a year for academic research. This puts them fourth on the list of funding recipients globally, and makes us the only African country in the top 10, according to the World Academic Summit Innovation Index.

The index is compiled by the Times Higher Education, a leading global publication with a specific focus on higher education. It is best known for its annual ranking of universities. Using industry income – funding received by academic staff from business – as an indicator, the only countries better funded than South Africa were South Korea, Singapore and the Netherlands. It is the only African country on the list and lies ahead of India, the only Brics partner in the top 10.

Using data from its World University Rankings, the index suggests that businesses are moving funding away from traditional research universities in North America and Europe, where it has historically channelled funding, to researchers in the East and South Africa. Among the best-known innovations to come out of academic research before they are monetised by industry include the internet (research done at the University of California, Los Angeles and George Boole at Queen’s University in Cork), holograms (Imperial College of London), plasma screens (University of Illinois) and fluoride toothpaste (Indiana University).

Business-funded university research plays an important role in fuelling the knowledge economy, and the relationship between universities and business has evolved, says Phil Baty, the editor of Times Higher Education. He says that ivory tower discoveries and research are only able to make a social and economic impact if universities partner with industry. “And for some, an ability to attract funding from big business could even be a case of sink or swim in this age of austerity.”

Professor Helena Barnard of Gibs, the Gordon Institute of Business in Johannesburg, says this is true especially of a developing economy such as South Africa’s. “Faced with the choice between text books and expensive toys for researchers and finite resources, it is only right that we choose to pay for text books.”

However, it is imperative that a relationship between university research departments and business exists, says Barnard. Studies have shown that countries advance economically when a strong relationship exists between them. She stresses that such a relationship benefits an economy, especially a developing one. “Researchers deal with what is called pre-competitive research; that is to say, research in its infancy that may eventually drive a nation forward socially. It is research that may have economic benefits but those are too far down the road for a business to concentrate on.”

Symbiotic relationship

Business funding of university research encourages essential links between commerce and academia, she adds. Even if business angles research towards topics and ideas important to industry, it is research that will likely create new businesses, products and jobs. “Universities earn reputations from research they conduct and industry gains a set of really smart people studying problems holding back their success. Once a business can see an economic benefit from the research they will take it over and take it in-house.”

The professor points to Sasol as an example of this symbiotic relationship. The chemical and energy giant is the largest funder of university research – R250-million ($23-million) over 10 years from 2006 – in the country, but it still retains its own in-house research and development division. Sasol-funded research, through its University Collaboration Initiatives, supplements the salaries of researchers rated by the National Research Foundation, as well as funds Masters and PhD studies in the engineering and science fields.

For David Constable, the Sasol chief executive, the money spent is not just an investment in Sasol but an investment in the future of South Africa. “It helps to retain critical research capacity at our universities and to grow the next generation of world-class scientists and engineers. Sasol considers this investment as a proactive step to help our universities create the research and development skills which are essential for the growth and prosperity of both the industry and this country.”

Valuable to business

The obvious caveat to South Africa’s ranking is numbers. Barnard acknowledges that there are fewer researchers in South Africa than in the other countries rounding out the top 10. “The rankings are decided by averaging the funding spend across all working researchers. South African researchers are punching above their weight. The work being done is proving valuable to business so they continue to fund the research.”

In 2011, while she was the minister of science and technology, Naledi Pandor told a gathering of Sasol shareholders that the company’s investment in research was helping to build a stronger economy. “To develop these talented young minds, our universities, national facilities and institutes need to have highly skilled and inspirational faculties with well-equipped facilities. This is true in general, but particularly in the research and teaching facilities for science and chemical engineering at South African universities.”

Research funding to a large degree is aimed at studies in technology and engineering. In the South African context, and to an extent in other developing economies, medical research is also well funded. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the national departments of health and science and technology, recently announced a R370-million fund to develop vaccines and other technologies to fight HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

At the announcement, Professor Kelly Chibale, the founder and director of the University of Cape Town’s Drug Discovery and Development Centre, said: “It gives us an opportunity to develop lifesaving drugs that can have a huge impact in South Africa, the African continent and the world.” The centre will receive R55-million through the initiative.

In a knowledge-based economy universities matter as they are the drivers of research and the custodians of information. For this reason the index matters, it shows that research done in South Africa is proving vital. And as Barnard jokes, “as long as we can show that, business will continue to find the fancy machines researchers need”.