Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The National Research Foundation will slash funding for some of the top scientists in the country as it restructures one of its key funding programmes for "rated" researchers.

The foundation uses a rating system to benchmark researchers and has until now rewarded those who make the grade with multiyear incentive grants: an A-rated scientist, for example, has been eligible for R500,000 over five years.

From January, the multiyear grants will come to an end and the amount awarded to people at the top of their game will be dramatically cut: for example, an A-rated scientist will get a one-off grant of R50,000 in January, and no further funding.

National Research Foundation CEO Molapo Qhobela said these changes were necessary because the foundation simply did not have enough money to go around.

The growth in the number of rated researchers over the past decade had not been matched by an increase in the foundation’s parliamentary grant.

In fact, the foundation’s parliamentary grant had declined year on year by, on average, three percentage points a year in real terms over the past five years, Qhobela said.

The number of rated researchers increased from 1,684 in 2008 to 3,689 in 2017.

Not all rated researchers would face cuts, as the changes were intended to ensure continued support to the "rising stars" of the research community.

Funding would be increased for people who got a "Y" (promising young researcher) or "P" (prestigious award) rating.

Students supported by the multiyear grants anticipated by rated researchers would not be left in the lurch, as there was some flexibility in the new model. "We will ensure students
are not in peril," Qhobela said.

In a letter sent to "stakeholders", the foundation said the savings it realised from restructuring the incentive funding programme would be invested in other interventions that supported researchers.

DA higher education spokeswoman Belinda Bozzoli, who was an A-rated researcher and formerly chair of the board of the National Research Foundation, said the decision to cut funding to top researchers had left university staff and students demoralised and angry. "I know scientists who are absolutely gobsmacked," she said. "I am asking them to rethink this plan in the light of the hundreds of the best researchers who are going to be deprived of funding and left
disillusioned with the National Research Foundation. I am confident they can come up with a less drastic and punitive plan."

The foundation’s deputy CEO for research and innovation support and advancement, Gansen Pillay, said the changes needed to be seen in the broader context of overall funding provided to researchers by the institution, which was limited by the funding allocated by the government. "We are doing the responsible thing and mitigating the financial risk going into the future," he said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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