South African investment in R&D declines but vital in the era of COVID-19

These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

The roll-out of the J&J vaccine by the government this week has highlighted the importance of a well-resourced science, technology and innovation system. The country is able to safely store the vaccine, roll it out and monitor its implementation. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, local scientists and research infrastructure have played a significant role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Africa is currently benefitting from past investments made by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in research and development (R&D). Not only has the DSI invested heavily in health and medical research, but also in modernising industries like mining and growing renewable energy technologies.

Given the immense benefits of past investments, a bigger focus is required across government and the private sector for increased investment in R&D. This is particularly critical now, as it is unclear for how long COVID-19 will continue to impact communities around the world.

A call for increased investment also comes at a time when South Africa's expenditure on R&D has declined for the first time since recovering from the contractions experienced in 2009/10 and 2010/11.

This is the key finding of the 2018/19 National Survey of Research and Experimental Development (R&D Survey), which was published on Thursday.

Gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) for 2018/19 amounted to R36,784 billion at current rand values. This represents a decline of 5% (R1,941 billion) from the R38,725 billion recorded in 2017/18 after seven consecutive years of year-on-year growth. In constant 2010 prices, GERD fell from R25,963 billion in 2017/18 to R23,732 billion in 2018/19, a year-on-year change of -8,6%.

These data are reported in the latest R&D Survey, which is undertaken annually on behalf of the DSI by the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), with support from Statistics South Africa.

GERD is an aggregated measure of in-house R&D expenditure performed domestically in five institutional sectors, namely government, science councils, higher education institutions, the business sector, and the not-for-profit sector.

South Africa's R&D intensity, that is, GERD as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) at current prices, declined by eight basis points, from 0,83% in 2017/18 to 0,75% in 2018/19.

A modest increase in R&D expenditure by the higher education sector, of R173 million (1,3%), and by the not-for-profit sector, of R269 million (22,1%), were not enough to off-set declines in government and business R&D expenditure.

Notably, the financial and manufacturing sectors experienced substantial year-on-year decreases in R&D expenditure, of 17,7% and 29,2% respectively. By contrast, R&D expenditure in mining and quarrying increased by 58,8%, from R1,101 billion in 2017/18 to R1,748 billion in 2018/19.

Even though the amount of R&D expenditure by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) declined by R44 million, the contribution of SOEs to R&D expenditure in the business sector increased by 1,3 percentage points to 17,3% in 2018/19.

The proportion of R&D performed in Gauteng province decreased from 49,5% in 2009/10 to 42,9% in 2018/19.

Other key headline indicators

South Africa's total R&D personnel headcount declined from 84 262 in 2017/18 to 84 036 in 2018/19, a slight decline of 0,3%. The ratio of 1,8 full-time equivalent (FTE) researchers per 1 000 employed reported for 2018/19 remained unchanged from the level reported in 2017/18. The proportion of female researchers increased by 0,8 percentage points, from 44,9% in 2017/18 to 45,7% in 2018/19.

The continued decline in the number of technicians supporting R&D, in terms of the headcount and FTE, remains a concern.

The main sources of funding for R&D in South Africa in 2018/19 were government (47,5%) and business (39,5%). The government sector, which includes science councils and universities' own funds, funded 3,4% less R&D in 2018/19 than in 2017/18. The business sector's funding for R&D also declined, by 9,5% year-on-year. By contrast, R&D funding secured from foreign sources increased by 1,6% in 2018/19.

The largest proportion of R&D expenditure in 2018/19 was allocated to applied research at R19,316 billion (52,5%), followed by basic research at R10,364 billion (28,2%) and experimental development at R7,103 billion (19,3%). By research field, R&D expenditure was concentrated in the social sciences (22,4%), followed closely by medical and health science (21,2%) and the engineering sciences (12,9%).

COVID-19 caveat

The 2018/19 R&D Survey was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, particularly during the final data collection phase. To mitigate against the likelihood of a lower response rate, fieldwork was extended to improve the rate of return, especially in the business sector.

Given the impact of COVID-19 on the 2018/19 R&D Survey, the results are published with the caveat that trend analysis of indicators that use business sector statistics should be treated with caution owing to the unusually high number of imputations used to estimate the business sector statistics.

The R&D Survey offers important information for stakeholders across all sectors to understand the trends in national R&D expenditure and human resources devoted to R&D. The DSI will conduct deeper analysis of the 2018/19 R&D Survey results and facilitate stakeholder consultations in order to contribute to strengthening the country's national system of innovation.

The 2018/19 R&D Survey Statistical Report can be downloaded from the DSI and HSRC websites – and

For more information, please contact:

Ms Tshidi Lekala (DSI) at 012 804 6555 or [email protected]

Dr Glenda Kruss (CeSTII) at 021 466 8086 or [email protected]

This article was first published on 18 February by the South African Department of Science & Innovation.

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