Two decades after the beginning of apartheid's fall, the optimism felt by South African researchers is fading with the challenges of finding funding, keeping pace with ambitious targets and dealing with the legacy of racial segregation.
Five years ago the country launched two programmes: one to increase the number of PhD graduates and a 'research-chair scheme' where top researchers train graduate students.
But just 82 people have been appointed as chairs, short of the 210 hoped for by the end of 2010. And PhD recruitment has stalled since 2005, with 2009 figures expected to be lower than those of 2008 because of budget cuts.
Part of the reason is the country's taste for prestigious 'big science' projects, say researchers. The government has allocated 1.9 billion rand (US$250 million) — 14 per cent of the Department of Science and Technology's annual budget — to a bid to host the Square Kilometre Array, a powerful radio telescope. South Africa has been shortlisted with Australia and, if successful, construction will cost more than US$2 billion.
Another problem is the continued effect of racial segregation under apartheid. In 2006, for example, just 12 per cent of 18–24 year old black South Africans were in tertiary education compared with almost two-thirds of white young people, a statistic that can be partly attributed to the lack of science teaching in apartheid-era black schools.
Science minister Naledi Pandor has called for a major reform of the school system and has acknowledged that there must be a return to basic research. But Bongani Mayosi, the University of Cape Town's chair of medicine, says: "We must fight our corner — the future of research is too important to leave in the hands of government alone".