Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nature on South African science

Today, February 11th, 2010, is the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Nature has taken this opportunity to publish two articles about the state of science in South Africa: a news feature entitled "South African science: black, white and grey" and an editorial "South Africa's opportunity".

The news feature by Michael Cherry is the most interesting: it focuses on the funding and educational challenges in South African science. Writes Cherry:
Lack of strong science leadership, a dearth of funds and a series of well-intentioned but poorly executed schemes have left most of those hopes unrealized. In 1994, the Mandela government established a ministry of science, technology, arts and culture; later, under Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) split off as a separate ministry. But its spending priorities have been questioned, its efforts to boost student numbers have failed to live up to expectations, and beyond that, many scars of the racially segregated education system remain.
Particular problems identified includes a lack of substantial funding for basic research and too much focus on applied and prestige projects (like SALT and the SKA). Additionally, South Africa has yet to reach its 1% of GDP target for R&D spend, and the system of awarding (meager) block funding in terms of how researchers are 'rated' by the National Research Foundation (NRF) seems rather silly. (It has not helped that the Ministry of Science and Technology has long been handed to minor political partners of the ANC-led government, which meant science lacked influential advocates in government. Luckily, Naledi Pandor, the new minister, is an ANC bigwig).  

The most serious problem, however, is South Africa's dysfunctional education system that is simply not producing enough capable students. Of particular concern is that this problem is especially acute for black students, largely due to a lack of qualified teachers and the legacy of Bantu education (which deliberately provided an inferior education). What is worse, retaining graduates (especially black graduates) is difficult, because more lucrative careers draw them away from academia and research. Cherry sums up these problems, so:
Stark racial differences in participation rates still exist across the board in higher education: in 2006, 59% of white and 42% of Indian 18–24-year-olds — but only 13% of coloureds and 12% of black Africans — were engaged in tertiary education. And although the NRF is justifiably proud that more than half the doctoral students it supported in 2008 were black, it declined to disclose how many of these were in science and engineering. Many black schools in the apartheid era did not offer mathematics and physical science as subjects, initially as a point of policy, and latterly on account of a teacher shortage. But the sad reality is that after almost 16 years of democracy, the proportion of black and white school leavers attaining good enough grades in these subjects to qualify for university courses in science has not risen significantly, in part because efforts to train and recruit schoolteachers in these subjects have failed.
The editorial I referred to above strikes a more positive note and suggests reforms:
However, there is reason for optimism. The South African research community's long alienation from the government, which emanated largely from former president Thabo Mbeki's denialist stand on AIDS, is at last a thing of the past. And in May 2009, newly elected president Jacob Zuma appointed Naledi Pandor as his minister of science and technology. Her role as education minister in the previous cabinet has given Pandor a firm grasp of the problems facing science in South Africa. And because she is the first incumbent at her ministry to be a member of the ruling African National Congress, she has the requisite clout to effect reform.
The best way to recruit good teachers and academics is by offering much better salaries, decent working conditions and good facilities. But this will require significant financial commitment by the government, as well as cooperation between the departments of education and higher education. Nonetheless, as South Africa emerges from the recession this year, it would be one of the wisest investments Zuma's government could make. Perhaps the National Planning Commission, which is headed by the highly regarded former finance minister Trevor Manuel, could provide a mechanism by which such a huge task might be achieved.
For all of its problems in science, South Africa has a solid and productive core of university-based researchers. And since the end of apartheid, the country's universities have been enriched by significant numbers of students from other African countries. South Africa thus has the potential to become not just a major player on the international research stage, but also a catalyst for the development of science throughout the continent. There is a huge pool of talent waiting to be tapped, and it is up to Zuma, Pandor and other political leaders to put in place the money and systems with which to tap it.

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