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  • Research, research productivity and the state in South Africa
  • Adam Habib (bio) and Seán Morrow (bio)


Academic, scholarly, and applied social research is in crisis in South Africa. As the Department of Science and Technology's (DST's) National Research and Development Strategy (R&D Strategy) indicates, national spending on research and development declined from 1.1 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1990 to 0.7 per cent in 1994, even though South Africa's scientific system now had to support the political and socio-economic aspirations of 40 million, rather than 5-6 million people (Government of the Republic of South Africa 2002:15).1 This percentage is particularly low when one considers that the OECD countries spend on average 2.15 per cent of GDP across the public and private sectors, while countries like Finland and Korea spend even more, approaching the 3.5 per cent level. This, as DST's R&D strategy document concludes, is disastrous, since 'South Africa's current expenditure is significantly lower than it should be to ensure national competitiveness in years to come' (Government of the Republic of South Africa 2002:17).

But the problem is more profound than aggregate spending on research. Indeed, South Africa's share of global research output has been declining for over a decade, from 0.8 per cent in 1990 to 0.5 per cent by 2001. Independent assessments of total publications by South Africa's public research sector suggest that the country's scientific output has been stagnating for the last decade and a half (Kahn and Blankley 2005; Pouris 2003). Moreover, for some years researchers have been ageing without adequate renewal taking place. This is graphically demonstrated in figures, again provided in the R&D strategy, which indicate that whereas researchers over 50 years of age produced only 18 per cent of publications in 1990, [End Page 9] their contribution to total output had increased to 45 per cent by 1998. Moreover, black scientists accounted for only 8 per cent of total scientific publications at this stage (Government of the Republic of South Africa, 2002:21). In short, South Africa's scientific personnel are mainly white and male, and ageing rapidly. If this is not urgently addressed, it will result in the decline of the country's scientific profile and infrastructure in the coming decades.

In recent years this crisis has galvanised government into action. Not only are there a number of initiatives under way to re-organise and direct funding to the scientific establishment, but also conversations are increasingly being facilitated across a diverse set of stakeholders aimed at understanding the problems at hand and fashioning solutions. There have, for instance, been four meetings of the Higher Education Working Group, which comprises the President and the Vice Chancellors of all higher education institutions. Signifying the urgency of the matter, President Mbeki, with the ministers of Science and Technology, and Public Enterprises, Mosibudi Mangena and Alec Erwin respectively, have coauthored a paper intended to spark a national dialogue on the role of higher education institutions and their purpose in contemporary South Africa (Erwin et al 2005).

Another notable initiative was a conference in June 2005 organised on behalf of the DST by the Africa Institute and the Human Sciences Research Council. The conference focused on how to revitalise research in South Africa. It of course took place as a result of recognition by government and other entities that South Africa's share of global research output has steadily declined for over 15 years. Government is increasingly worried about the implications of this, especially for economic development, political democracy and higher education.2

The representatives of various stakeholders participated in the conference, including among others state officials, higher education and science council managers, private sector and civil society leaders, researchers themselves, and international experts. Almost all were decision-makers within different institutional settings, and were, as a result, collectively in a position to put a negotiated national strategy into effect. The conference adopted a multi-faceted resolution that involved action by all stakeholders.

This paper reflects critically on this resolution, reviewing its viability against the backdrop of existing research on...


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