NRF cuts hurt South Africa’s scientists


Researchers need to hold public officials accountable

Photo of microscope
The National Research Foundation has cut funding to key programmes. Photo: University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences (via Flickr - CC BY 2.0)

Budgetary constraints have forced the National Research Foundation (NRF) to slash funding in key programmes. Recent cutbacks threaten to reduce research in the short term and drive more young researchers out of the public sector. The massive cuts have been criticised, but there are also other questionable changes to resource allocation.

The NRF assesses researchers and assigns them a rating based on research output and impact. The NRF has argued that the number of rated researchers has expanded too rapidly for funding to be maintained at previous levels. The NRF says its Incentive Funding for Rated Researchers programme encouraged research but was “never created as a primary vehicle for funding research”.

But an environment has developed where many of South Africa’s public sector researchers have come to rely on the NRF’s modest funding to maintain research programmes. The grant pays for students, buys supplies and covers maintenance expenses. Now some researchers have seen their funding cut by up to 90% with little warning. Evidently there have been problems with strategic projections, long-term planning and communication. Most researchers became aware of the changes only in late 2017.

The NRF funds postdoctoral scholars through its Free-Standing, Innovation and Scarce Skills Postdoctoral Fellowships. Funding is allocated based on a proposal and the research and teaching profile of the applicant, among other criteria. Although applications were accepted for postdoctoral research both at South African institutions and institutions abroad, the NRF appears to have decided that for 2018 funding would only be allocated to researchers based at domestic institutions.

In April, I received official feedback on my application, ten months after it was submitted. Although the review panel (consisting of technical experts) had recommended the fellowship be awarded, the NRF funding committee had decided against it due to “budgetary constraints and competitiveness of the programme”.

This is the same reason given for cutbacks to the rated researchers programme. It is at least commendable that relatively detailed feedback is provided to applicants.

Postdoctoral researchers are both producers of research and trainees. The NRF has in effect decided not to support a single young researcher for training at an institution abroad. Such decisions have implications for promising science careers, particularly of young black scientists who rely heavily on this funding. Future international collaboration, essential in modern science, has also been undermined.

The NRF’s measured outcomes are dominated by how many researchers it funds. This may have encouraged a shift in favour of lower-rated B and C-rated researchers over A-rated researchers, or domestically-based postdoctoral researchers over those based overseas, because the individual grants are cheaper. Those of us on the outside just do not know what processes have brought about the recent changes. When it comes to key decisions about resource allocation, the concern is whether individual researchers are being supported and communicated with in a manner that is fair and makes strategic sense.

The NRF’s 2020 strategy claims it “will enable the organisation to intensify and strengthen African and global networks to position South Africa in the international arena in order to drive the knowledge economy”.

The mission of the strategy is “to contribute to the knowledge economy in South Africa by attaining at least 1% of the global research and development (R&D) output by 2020”.

The overriding problem is a lack of resources. We need a greater percentage of GDP allocated to research. The previous Minister for Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, argued for 1.5%, but with essential services under financial pressure this is going to be difficult.

What is achievable is for the NRF and the Department of Science and Technology to communicate better and be transparent about decision-making.

The NRF needs to clarify whether the cuts this year were a once-off adjustment because of budgetary shortfalls or if the cuts will apply well into the future.

Scientists — as well as the public — should be made aware of the extent of funding shortages and what this means for public investment in scientific study and research for the future.

The research community needs to hold public officials accountable and defend the public institutions that support research. We should not be waiting for funding cuts that affect us directly before organising and taking action in the public interest.

Engel is Commonwealth Rutherford Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, University of Bath.

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

The situation is much worse than Dr Engel makes out. Furthermore, it’s not the researchers’ role to seek redress; it’s a job for highly paid/bonused university leaders, their ruling Councils and members of the government whose job is to promote the development of new generations of South African leaders. Professors need to ‘profess’ and students need to develop sufficiently to replace/surpass them.

Why is the situation worse?

The National Research Foundation (NRF) rating system dates back to the 1980s and is a “key driver” to “build a globally competitive science system in South Africa”. It uses eminent local and international peer reviewers to regularly “benchmark the quality of our researchers against the best in the world”, based on their “recent research outputs and impact”. This essential for South African researchers/educators to ‘justify their existence’ as “supervisors [who] will impart cutting-edge skills to the next generation of researchers”. For a scholarly treatment of the NRF Rating System, read UCT emeritus Prof. C.L. ‘Kit’ Vaughan’s 2015 biographical/historical account. On the Shoulders of Oldenburg: a Biography of the Academic Rating System in South Africa. National Research Foundation, Pretoria.

To help them do just this, the NRF rewarded rated researchers with relatively small (<R100 000) amounts of “incentive funding” to help them pursue unfettered research and educational endeavours. This funding was often used to provide key support for doctoral and post-doctoral students, many of whom are now rated researchers and supervisors in their own right and/or scientific leaders. For example, five of my ‘incentive-funded’ graduates are full/associate professors or directors African natural history museums locally. Two were ‘head-hunted’ to distinguished chairs - at the University of California at Berkeley and the American Museum of Natural History.

In short, by cutting off modest incentive funding to rated researchers to save or better use their funding, the NRF is undermining its raison d'être.