• In the last decade, spending on ICT and the environment R&D have more than doubled, but medical sciences still gets the lion’s share of research money
  • In 2016-17, South Africa spent R35.7 billion on research and development (R&D), a nominal increase of more than 10%.
  • The number of researchers in higher education have doubled in the last decade.

South Africa has doubled the amount it spends on research into ICT and the environment in the last decade, according to the latest survey into R&D spending released on Friday.

In 2007 to 2008, the country (including government, business, academia, and not-for profits) spent R855 million on R&D related to the environment. But the new survey shows that in 2016 to 2017, R2 billion went towards developing environmental knowledge and other aspects of environmental R&D.

Spending on information and communication technology (ICT) R&D burgeoned from R1.2 billion to R2.7 billion in the same period.

See also: The hidden cost of crime: R3.5 billion for the SA police per year – for science

However, health (particularly medical science) continues to be reigning area of R&D in South Africa, at R4.7 billion.

And this money has yielded tangible results. For example, in early 2017 researchers at the University of Cape Town discovered a gene implicated in heart attacks in people under 35. In 2016-17, the South African Medical Research Council funded 30 innovation and technology projects, which were directed at developing new diagnostics, devices, vaccines and therapeutics. The lion’s share of medical science spending goes toward research into TB, HIV/Aids and malaria.

In general, South Africa’s research system continues to inch forward, despite the financial squeeze of government austerity on its funding institutions.

The latest national survey of research and experimental development – the major tally of where the country spends its research money and who is spending it – found that the country spent R35.7 billion on R&D, a nominal increase of more than 10%.

In real terms, spending grew 3.5%.

Universities and higher education (which is considered part of government spending, along with science councils and other government R&D-related expenditure) drove this increase, spending a total of R11.7 billion in 2016-17.

South Africa is in a rather strange position for a country with relatively large R&D capacity: government is the major funder of R&D in the country (46%), followed by business (39.4%). In fact, in 2016-17, business only increased its R&D spend by 0.2% – and that was mainly thanks to state-owned enterprises.

The number of researchers employed by businesses has remained stagnant in the last 10 years (at 12,549 full-time equivalents in 2016-17). By contrast, higher education has seen rapid growth, with its full-time equivalents rising from 11,505 to 22,061 in the same period. Full-time equivalents is an estimate of the time spent on R&D, and is different from headcount.

Overall, researcher numbers increased across the system to 42,533 in 2016-17 from 41,055 the previous year, but that is largely due to the fact that this is the first time that the survey has included non-South African researchers in its calculations.

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