South Africa Cuts Science and Innovation Budget: Announces Plan for the Future

Dr Blade Nzimande South Africa Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology
Dr Blade Nzimande. Photo Credit: @SAGovNews via Twitter

The South African Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, has announced a massive budget cut in the 2020/2021 South African budget, on the occasion of the Department of Science and Innovation budget vote presentation at the National Assembly. During the budget presentation, the Minister announced future plans for science and technology in the country.

The Budget cut became imperative due to the Coronavirus pandemic, as the country is adjusting to prioritise containment of the virus in South Africa. In his address, the Minister mentioned that “the mandate of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) is to provide an enabling environment for the national system of innovation (NSI) to deliver solutions that address the socio-economic needs of the country”.  

“Today, as a result of investments made in key research and innovation areas across the NSI, South Africa is harvesting the benefits of a small but effective science system”.

“The DSI has been mobilising across the NSI, especially among its entities and the entities of sister departments, specific initiatives that are currently being fast-tracked to support the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis”.  

“These initiatives included the following:

  • Deploying DSI-funded infrastructure to expand testing for COVID-19,
  • Biomanufacturing,
  • Molecular biology enzymes, reagents and testing kits,
  • Development of personal protective equipment,
  • Supporting good hygiene practice,
  • Coordinating efforts for a local COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing plant and,
  • Technical support for the National Ventilator Project, of which our entity CSIR was contracted to manufacture 2 000 non-invasive ventilators,
  • Epidemiological modelling of the pandemic and its character in South Africa,
  • Informing how the country should respond through data analytics, and conducting a survey to determine attitudes and understanding of the virus by citizens.
  • The solutions being harnessed now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic are a clear indication that South Africa has the research and innovation capacity to solve the challenges facing society today and into the future”.

While addressing the legislators, the Minister also revealed a decadal plan for Science and Technology in South Africa. “The 2019 White Paper on STI, which will be implemented through a Decadal Plan 2020-2030, is the principal policy guiding the NSI and commits the country to furthering (sic) the role of STI in economic and social development, emphasising the core themes of inclusivity, transformation and partnerships”. 

As the country is looking towards affordable broadband, e-education, e-medicine and e-governance, the Minister stressed that “the local manufacturing of a communication satellite will also give the country much-needed data and information sovereignty, and bolster South Africa’s role in the implementation of the SADC Industrialisation Strategy”.

“We have also used our Space science and Earth observation decision support tool for the Department of Human Settlement to enable their planning and the monitoring and evaluation of COVID-19 interventions. Earth observation is also being used to support the Department of Small Business Development’s mapping of spaza shops for the government’s Spaza Support Programme”.

The Minister’s speech focused majorly on the role of using Science and Technology to help South Africa recover from the pandemic, while also developing its economy. The minister however touched on the Square Kilometre Array project of South Africa. “As a country, we have completed the ratification of the Convention that will establish the SKA Observatory, which will be responsible for (the) governance of the construction and operational phases of the SKA project. Close to 700 million euros (USD 818 million) worth of contracts for the construction of the SKA will start to be awarded to companies and providers in the SKA member countries from late 2020, providing a substantial return on investment for those countries.  Spinoffs are also expected to emerge from work to design and build the SKA, with start-ups already being created out of some of the design work”.

He mentioned further that “Astronomy in South Africa remains important to its socio-economic landscape, the heritage will further be strengthened through the 64 dish MeerKAT, which has already been able to give us a glimpse into the star-formation history of the universe. To extend its research area reach, the MeerKAT is to be expanded by 20 dishes at a cost of R800 million (USD 48 million). The expansion will be a partnership between South Africa, Germany and China. The MeerKAT will be further be integrated into SKA Phase 1 (2019-2024) with an additional 133 antennas in the Karoo up to 80 km baseline from the core to make it a 197-dish array mid-frequency telescope. I must indicate that our MeerKAT telescope continues to perform great science and has contributed to several discoveries”.  

“The benefits of hosting these telescopes include a 75% local content component, direct investment of more than R300 million (USD 18 million) in the Northern Cape SARAO alone, the development of technical skills and big data capabilities, strengthening of university research programmes, opportunities for SMMEs and industry, community upliftment programmes, and investment in the youth”.

Towards the end of his presentation, the Minister then told the house how much the Department will be spending. 

“The Budget Allocation for the Department, in the financial year 2020/21 is R7.4 Billion (USD 446 million) and includes allocations to our agencies. The budget appropriation for the 2020/21 is as follows:”

  • Technology Innovation R1.4 Billion (USD 84.5 million)
  • International Cooperation R116,8 Million (USD 7 million)
  • R & D and Support R3.9 Billion (USD 235 million)
  • Socio-Economic Innovation Part R1.7 Billion (USD 102 million)
  • Administration R314 Million (USD 18.9 million)
  • TOTAL: R7.4 Billion (USD 446 million)

Although the Minister for Finance, Tito Mboweni, had hitherto announced that departments should cut their budgets by 20%, the Department of Science and Technology was able to justify an 8% cut across its departments.

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande told MPs in the National Council of Provinces on Tuesday 21 July that the department’s total adjustment budget cut for 2020-21 was ZAR9.857 billion (US$596 million) – a reduction of 8% of the original allocation of R116.857 billion (USD 7.023 billion) for the current financial year.

The cut was made across departments thus:

  • The Academy of Science of South Africa – R2.7 million (USD 163 thousand)
  • South African National Space Agency – R18.2 million (USD 1.09 million)
  • Human Sciences Research Council – R32.4 million (USD 1.9 million)
  • Technology Innovation Agency – R45.5 million (USD 2.7 million)
  • National Research Foundation – R96.6 million (USD 5.8 million)
  • Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – R99.7 million (USD 6.07 million)

The new budget for South Africa’s Higher Education, Science and Technology will be R107 billion (USD 6.4 billion). The cuts will mostly affect research funding and administration, but capital projects will proceed as usual.

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