Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

SA’s most important agencies for funding local scientific research are battling under the strain of declining government support and a weak economy, a series of annual reports tabled in parliament on Thursday show.

The National Research Foundation (NRF), which provides grants to researchers, said its R926m parliamentary grant for the 2017-2018 fiscal year failed to beat inflation, and was a 0.3% decline in real terms compared to the year before. The continued decline in the parliamentary grant, which had diminished steadily over the past five years, threatened the operational and financial stability of the organisation, it said in its 2017-2018 annual report.

The NRF announced in October 2017 that it was forced to cut grants for top scientists from January 2018 in order to restructure one of its most important funding programmes. It slashed multiyear grants to people at the top of the profession, saying at the time it did not have enough money to go around. 

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) recorded a R14m loss for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which it attributed to a general decline in investments in research and development, and a drop in public-sector income. “This has been a particularly challenging year for the CSIR from a financial sustainability perspective,” it said in its 2017-2018 annual report.

Its public sector income dropped from R1.58bn to R1.40bn, which the CSIR said was due to an apparent shift in government priorities and changes in procurement requirements imposed by the Treasury.

Its parliamentary grant remained virtually flat at R722m, compared to R714m the year before.

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) said its budget was cut by R22m in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, putting pressure on it to obtain a greater proportion of its operating budget from external sources.

The South African National Space Agency said funding constraints raised concerns about the EOSAT-1 satellite mission, slated for launch in 2020, but did not elaborate.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za