Science department takes on Treasury over damaging budget cuts
Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has expressed concern about the budget allocated to her department, saying officials are in discussion with Treasury to appeal for more funds.
"We are not happy with the level where we are. We understand the constraints the country is facing, [but] indeed we are concerned," she said on Wednesday ahead of her budget speech to Parliament.
The department’s budget increases by on average 4.8% a year over the medium term, rising from R7.6bn in 2017-18 to R8.7bn by 2020-21. As part of the Treasury’s drive to cut spending in the face of the revenue shortfall and the need to fund free higher education, the Cabinet approved a R186.1m cut to the department’s budget over the period. These cuts affect its own spending plans, as well as the baseline allocations of the entities that report to it.
One of the entities feeling the pinch is the National Research Foundation, which announced in 2017 that it was slashing funding for top researchers, in response to a steady decline in the budget it had available for research grants.
Its decision was met with dismay by universities, which warned that the changes threatened the research system and its capacity to train the next generation of scientists.
The department’s director-general, Phil Mjwara, said discussions were under way with the Treasury to consider a longer-term budgeting process than the three-year medium-term expenditure framework.
Work was also under way to model the financial implications of providing further government support to students who qualified for free higher education as announced by former president Jacob Zuma in 2017, he said. The new policy provides free tertiary education at undergraduate level but makes no provision for postgraduate studies.
The key impediment to black students pursuing post-graduate research was lack of money, Mjwara said.
Kubayi-Ngubane defended the government’s decision to allocate a large slice of the science vote to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), saying it was an investment that would bolster SA’s international competitiveness and boost economic development.
The SKA will be the world’s most sensitive radio telescope. It is an international project that will ultimately have thousands of dishes in Africa, with their core in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.
The Treasury has set aside R2.2bn for the SKA over the medium-term expenditure framework, making it the biggest single science project supported by the government.