27 June 2018

Thomas Auf der Heyde, deputy director-general for research development and support at the Department of Science and Technology, provides a preview of a study at CREST that puts the spotlight on the state of basic sciences in South Africa. The report will inform future policy for supporting the basic sciences in South Africa.

The basic sciences are the building blocks for applied science and technology — and training schools for the PhD-level researchers required for a knowledge-intense, innovation-driven economy. In recent years the Department of Science and Technology has invested significantly in a wide range of technology development initiatives, including biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, battery technologies and nanotechnology.

Success in many of these initiatives has given rise to a concern that the department may be prioritising applied sciences over the basic ones, to the long-term detriment of science in SA. These fears are not consistent with the evidence.

Between 2010-11 and 2018-19, the department’s budget increased by 88.7%, but that of the National Research Foundation — the department’s major conduit for investment in basic science and research — increased by 152%. The proportion of the department’s budget allocated to the foundation increased from 35% to 47% over this period. In proportion to the overall investment in science and technology by the department, investment in basic science therefore increased significantly.

A large proportion of this increase is accounted for by the cost of the SKA/MeerKAT project, which constitutes an investment in a range of basic sciences such as physics, astronomy and computer science, notwithstanding the exciting new technologies that are beginning to emerge from this project and the major boost it has given to South African engineering.

The investment especially in astronomy over the past 10 years is predicated on the strategic decision made by the department in 2004 to develop those areas of science in which SA enjoyed a geographic advantage, such as astronomy (clear, dust and radio-free skies) and palaeosciences (the Cradle of Humankind).

This strategic choice has yielded significant scientific returns for the relevant sciences, with SA becoming increasingly competitive on the global stage, but it might have been accompanied by a reduction in other important basic sciences.

Consequently, we now need to soberly assess the state of the key basic sciences as a whole in order to formulate appropriate policy for this important area of the national science and technology enterprise.

Toward this end, the department has commissioned a report from the Centre for Research on Science, Technology and Evaluation (Crest), located at the University of Stellenbosch, SA’s leading centre for scientometrics (the measurement of science). This methodology allows us to quantify the state of science through various proxy indicators that measure the number of research publications and the rate at which they are cited (as references in scientific papers), and therefore how they impact on global science, for example. These metrics then allow a comparison of SA’s science (as a whole or in specific fields) with the global state of science or of that field.

The centre’s report is not yet finalised, but the provisional results are beginning to reveal important, enlightening and encouraging results, which will over time shape policy for supporting the basic sciences in SA and will provide an objective base for making difficult choices that will probably be required in due course.

Computer science is an important discipline accompanying the increasing computational demands not only of modern science but also of the economy; big data is ubiquitous in science and business. Although South African scientific publications in this field have about doubled over the past decade, they contribute only some 0.3% to the global output, less than the average 0.8% contribution made by South African science to global production.

Moreover, SA’s rank in terms of total output has dropped from 37th in 2005 to 51st in 2016, and the overall national strength of computer science regressed during this period, though in some subfields there has been some improvement. Given the centrality of big data and computational skills and capacity to modern science and the economy, the department will need to consider appropriate policy interventions urgently, in conjunction with relevant private sector stakeholders such as the financial services and the information and communications technology sectors.

Interesting changes occurred in the field of physics over the period 2005-16. The impact (as measured by citations) of South African papers in the subfields of nuclear, particle and field physics increased to between 2.5 and three times the global average, while the overall standing of work in applied, fluid, plasma, atomic and mathematical physics was unchanged. It is likely that the relative strengthening of nuclear-related physics is coupled to the department’s strategy of strengthening links to the European Nuclear Research Centre and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia.

The need to strengthen computer science and the opportunity to capitalise on the strengths of the relevant subfields of physics play an important role in discussions about the feasibility of establishing a national institute for computational and theoretical sciences, with the current National Institute for Theoretical Physics as its core.

Over the 2005-16 period scientific output in the field of astronomy and astrophysics increased five-fold, moving from a contribution of 0.75% of global output in the field, to almost 3%, far in excess of the average global contribution by South African science. Moreover, the impact of these publications is almost three times the global average impact of papers in the field, and almost 90% of multi-authored papers are produced with international partners.

Of course, these very positive changes are closely linked to the strategic prioritisation of astronomy and the consequent and consistent national investment made in it. All indications are that the national multiwavelength astronomy strategy being implemented through our world-class astronomy infrastructure will further enhance the status of this basic discipline in SA.

Lastly, the status of the geological sciences is important because of their link to the mining sector. Although output more than doubled during the above period, the relative contribution of this field to South African science has decreased by about 16% over the above period. Despite this decline, it appears the quality or strength of South African geological research has not diminished, as its contribution to global output remained about 1% throughout, its rank globally remained at about 30, higher than for most other fields, and its impact has remained above the global average.

The data suggest that while SA retains important capacity for geological research, signs of stagnation or contraction are discernible. This is of concern given the socioeconomic importance of the mining sector and the broad agreement that technological renewal of this sector is essential.

Careful analysis of our science enterprise can provide critical insight into its strengths and weaknesses, enabling the development of policies and interventions aimed at optimising the contribution of basic sciences in SA to our national needs and opportunities.

Auf der Heyde is the Department of Science and Technology’s deputy director-general for research development and support.

Read the article on Business Day

“The investment especially in astronomy over the past 10 years is predicated on the strategic decision made by the department in 2004 to develop those areas of science in which SA enjoyed a geographic advantage, such as astronomy (clear, dust and radio-free skies) and palaeosciences (the Cradle of Humankind).”