People walk past the R&D centre of Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL) in Ningde, Zhejiang province, China, on December 16 2016. The writer argues that SA needs to increase its investment in R&D. File Picture: REUTERS/JAKE SPRING
People walk past the R&D centre of Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL) in Ningde, Zhejiang province, China, on December 16 2016. The writer argues that SA needs to increase its investment in R&D. File Picture: REUTERS/JAKE SPRING

Facts and statistics related to the shortage of researchers, low PhD throughput and poor research output in SA have been thrashed out endlessly and there is no need to regurgitate them. This article seeks to find solutions to the above-stated challenges by providing concrete recommendations.

First, the retirement age of academics and researchers should be extended from 65 to 75. At 65 a researcher is still fairly young, and it is a waste of scarce resources to send these skilled people home when the country and economy need them desperately. By having many researchers active in universities, research institutes and the corporate environment, you would inevitably create more jobs for the unemployed through innovation.

Second, corporate SA, SA cities and provincial governments should join the national government in funding public universities’ research chairs. The national government should be commended for its efforts in this regard — in 2006 the department of science and technology (DST), and National Research Foundation (NRF) established the SA Research Chairs Initiative (SARChi). This programme is designed to attract and retain innovative and productive research at SA’s public universities through the establishment of research chairs with a long-term investment trajectory of up to 15 years.

Investment efforts onto public universities by the Gauteng government should also be acknowledged and emulated by other provincial administrations. Gauteng had partnered with Wits University and the University of Johannesburg to establish an effective research entity called Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO). This entity produces the biannual Gauteng quality of life survey and its findings are well regarded by all provincial and local government administrations in the province.

Premier David Makhura’s administration has recognised that universities, research institutes (such as the CSIR and HRC), and the Gauteng Innovation Hub are essential elements of the Gauteng innovation ecosystem. Furthermore, Gauteng has invested money in the appointments of some research chairs.

The private sector should increase its funding of research in SA universities, but also within companies’ research and development (R&D) units. If corporate SA hadn’t spent money on R&D this country would not have been able to take the lead in fintech innovations on the continent. Most aspects of internet and mobile banking were either invented or enhanced in SA. Much has been done and more should still be done in terms of R&D.

Third, the promotion criteria in universities should be reviewed. Historically, academics have been largely promoted based on their research output. This has resulted in teaching being neglected while academics focus on research output. Unfortunately, in most instances, the quality of this research has been poor and has limited potential to lead to tangible innovation and development. Be that as it may, academics who produce poor quality research output still accumulate research points, which contributes towards their promotion.

Fourth, universities should create part-time teaching and research positions for professionals in the industry. Due to the perceived low salaries in academia, it is difficult to attract highly skilled professionals to take fulltime positions. Universities should attract part-time lecturers both for teaching and research purposes.

Fifth, the government should make it easy for highly skilled researchers to work in SA. If you appoint a skilled foreign academic, their contribution may create at least 10 new jobs, and people from the designated groups will benefit from these newly created positions.

Last, more financial resources should be channeled into R&D. One of the reasons the Asian economies are doing well is they have been investing substantially in R&D. Asia has overtaken the US in terms of research-related investments. To see Asian hi-tech skills, simply crack open an Apple iPhone. Although the company selling it is American, the physical components that constitute the iPhone are produced in Asia — the screen is from Japan, the flash memory from South Korea — and it is assembled in China.

The US contribution to the iPhone is the architecture design and software development, but Apple uses highly qualified engineers from mostly Asian countries to integrate the innovations. Asia has employed research and technical skills to achieve its accelerated level of economic growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

It therefore makes sense for both the SA government and corporate SA to invest heavily in R&D. Researchers in the corporate environment should also be required to have masters degrees and PhDs. Most of Google’s engineers have PhDs. Here in SA we have Sasol Technology which has many employees with PhDs.

If SA wants to revitalise its economy, implementing some of these recommendations will provide a solid foundation. Analysis should also be done to determine the impact SARChI has had so far.

• Dagada (@Rabelani_Dagada), a former Johannesburg mayoral committee member responsible for finance, is the founder of GrandPoint Capital.