A recent article (The Conversation 11th February 2019) by David Walwyn, Professor of Technology Management at the University of Pretoria (UP), and Laurens Cloete, a PhD candidate at UP, deserves attention by those who can ill-afford the closure of Science Councils at this point of our transformation.
We are supportive of open debates; however, it will be remiss not to point to obvious gaps in Prof Walwyn and Mr Cloete's narrow articulation of how productive Universities are in relation to Science Councils. Comparing the cost of the University-based researchers to Science Council based researchers on the Full Time Equivalent (FTE) of a researcher without recognising that Universities are heavily reliant on postgraduate STUDENTS (Masters, PhD/Post-Doc) for research is flawed. Students are not researchers and therefore cannot be adequately accounted for when doing the comparative FTE analysis. It is not surprising therefore, that Universities will naturally have a low cost/FTE compared to Science Councils. It is that simple!
Walwyn and Cloete argue that "for every Rand of R&D expenditure the combined value of all the publications, patents, new ventures, income from intellectual property, research degrees conferred, and contract research income amounted to 26 cents for the science councils and 144 cents for the Universities." What they fail to indicate is that Universities receive significant amounts of subsidy from the Department of Higher Education and Training for each publication produced, and for each postgraduate student trained - subsidies which the Science Councils do NOT receive. Indeed, all postgraduates' students that are trained by Science Councils are by necessity registered with Universities, and the subsidy generated goes to the very same Universities - the same applies for publications produced by Science Councils. Science Councils do not receive such subsidies. Perhaps Walwyn and Cloete should have done this levelling of the playing fields in their analysis.
Walwyn and Cloete advocate for the closure of Science Councils and the redirecting of funding to universities and the private sector in order to strengthen the "country's ability to absorb new technologies and knowledge" - Science Councils are mandated to partner with Universities in generating and transmitting knew knowledge and work with industry to further develop this knowledge. It is curious how decimating one key pillar in this innovation value chain will enhance the country's ability to absorb new technologies and knowledge - if anything, we argue that this will be a fatal blow to the system.
At the end of their fatally flawed opinion piece, the esteemed commentators claim that their proposed action of closing Science Councils has international precedence - the study they quote unfortunately says nothing about policy proposals or actions in developing world that seek to close Science Councils. The commentators need to use more relevant examples to support their opinions.
It may be convenient to advocate for the redirection of funding away from Science Councils based on a flawed analytical method, but the long-term consequences of closing Science Councils at this stage of South Africa's transformation will be dire. Our recent history of redirecting funding away from teacher and nursing colleges must be a lesson that narrow, pure academic discourse of how to reallocate priorities and funding is dangerous. Of course, we need Science Councils that are responsive to the challenges of a New State and that are at the coalface of addressing new socio-economic problems. We need Science Councils that can extend the capacity of the State to respond to problems of enterprise creation and new industries. These Science Councils must be attractive places for new graduates and entrepreneurs.
Significantly, Science Councils must be attractive to Black Science, Technology and Engineering Professionals many of whom still struggle to make meaningful entry into the private sector. It is a fact that many Science Councils play a significant role in extending the capacity of the State in mining, defence, health, agriculture or administration as an example. This is so because they are best placed to play such a role. Could Higher Education Institutions do the same? Perhaps, but they are not equipped nor are they meant to deliver such a role. Higher Education Institutions by design must lead in the production of new knowledge, publications, patents and granting of degrees.
Instead of pushing for the redirection of funds to Universities based on an inadequate cost model analysis, we would encourage the advocates of Science Councils closure to interrogate the following questions: Shouldn't the role players be pulling together to highlight the problem of an underfunded Science System? Shouldn't role players be asking why there's been significant bailouts to many State-Owned Entities, and little assistance to save Professionals jobs at Science Councils? Is the current Science Councils design adequate for the purpose of the new Democratic State, if not how to adjust without closing them?
If ever there was a time to have Science Councils the time is now, but they must be funded adequately.
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