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Research funds are wasted on bureaucracy and controls


David Dickson's analysis stresses the importance of science quality and the danger of giving too much credence to projects with a commercial connotation (see Funding African science – an invitation for ideas).

The author can only be commended. The wish list and the caveats expressed in this article must stimulate the interest of the South African research community. 

Regrettably the four pillars for a strong system of research and innovation: quality, relevance, acceptance and accountability — as set out by Dickson — are not well-balanced in South Africa. Basic research supported by the National Research Foundation receives too little money, whereas the big cooperative programmes driven by the Department of Science and Technology, the Innovation Fund, National Bioinformatics Network and others are rather generously funded.

The big programmes adopt many of the ills of the European Framework Programme with a strong emphasis on corrective action and social relevance.

Massive amounts of money are being expended in bureaucracy, unrealistic expectations and controls, such as quarterly progress reports, commissions with frequent site visits and re-evaluations.

The result of such ill-guided policies is that researchers function mainly as computer jockeys, satisfying demands for extensive reports. They are overburdened with bureaucratic formalities at the expense of producing results. The drastic decline of South African's research output since 1994 is well known. 

A basic misconception is that research money must be tightly controlled, which justifies a sophisticated and extensive bureaucratic effort. People forget that research money is risk money awarded on trust. The only predictable outcome of this investment is that money given to a reputed scientist will generate good training, high quality publications and solid experience for those he or she trains. 

In the present climate this 'added value' is under-appreciated and dominated — in the biological sciences — by the desire to steer the process towards that little bottle of miracle drug or patent. People fail to recognise that the practice of doing good science is an extremely valuable exercise in its own right, as it shapes young intellects against international standards and hones their thinking and judgement.

It is also a well-known fact that the real discoveries and landmark papers from which new technologies grow are often generated by individuals or small groups —working without top-down management — simply pursuing a critical observation. 

In South Africa  we presently witness  too much of a quick fix mentality. A far reaching reorientation of research policy and award criteria is badly needed.  

Apart from the Science and Development Network, the South African Academy of Science and the African Union could play a role here.

This letter was originally published in the Cape Times.